Rats in Her Attic
“…and he had begun to feel that this world-puzzle that he was desperate to understand,…was really the puzzle of himself and the world at once, that they were in effect one and the same thing, which was the conclusion he had so far reached, and he had not yet given up on it, when after a couple of days, he noticed that there was something the matter with his head.”
— Laszlo Krasznahorkai [i]
I don’t remember the first time I met her. Surely, on either of my two previous visits to that dingy apartment, I must have seen her around. Although I say surely, it means something else. But I do remember her as she stomped down the ill-ventilated, grimy stairs, spewing what sounded like a slew of expletives. In fact, the rotund vowels of anger in her unfamiliar language tumbled down the steps, and greeted me before she did. Lugging my oversized bag to the second-floor apartment, I was lost in obsessive worries about the duration of my stay. I would adamantly see nothing else in such a state. And there she stood glowering on the first-floor landing. Reed-thin, diminutive, and barefoot. Whatever she was screaming about was abandoned for the moment perhaps because my surly look had distracted her. It seemed to me that a sudden burst of alertness rushed from her body to the broom she was carrying. Her frail fingers tightened around the plastic casing of its handle in a vice-like grip. And that broom, she wielded in that moment like a drawn sword. Or so I thought. I was amused, although a bit wary, and quickly swallowed the urge to laugh. But of course, I didn’t know then that she had the infamy of being the mad, old woman of that apartment complex. Or that she lived on that stairway. Well, almost.
Roughly three years ago, when travel restrictions enforced during the pandemic lockdown were lifted for the first time, it came about that I was suddenly moving from my home in the city of Bangalore and shifting to Kolkata. Towards the end of the previous year, my mother-in-law had passed after three long years of frequent hospital stays during which different parts of her body had given up on life. In fact, she had long withdrawn into some unknown pit in her mind much before her actual passing one early morning in Trivandrum. But such insights were of little help to her son. Alone in that dour apartment in Kolkata during the lockdown months, he endlessly considered all the visits he had not paid her, all the words he could have said. It no longer mattered whether the human somewhere in that pit would have registered them or not. There was too much time. It took possession of every single thing in that apartment like a river in deluge.
And then, that figure of speech suddenly turned real. The cyclone, Amphan, struck. Water lashed in through every possible aperture, washing over the man among wan things that belonged to no one in particular, replacing grief and guilt with fear. The torrid Kolkata sun which typically has territorial command on most interior spaces leached the water away soon enough. But weird-looking fungal growth started sprouting on a wall, underneath plywood shelves. Soon they leapt from one surface to the next with the verve of some juicy gossip.
But then, like a giant television screen that has all its channels playing at once, life had switched to epic mode. Hurried decisions, unplanned journeys, quick disposals of accustomed ways of living, all of that and more had become routine affairs. Unforeseen events stayed stapled to vision long after averting your eyes because your sense-making mechanism was stuck in another time. Still, we have a way of circling back to more intimate woes in time, don’t we? Or is it that they get back to us?
He flew down anyhow at the first opportunity to pick my other two males, one of which happens to be a dog. And they travelled all that way back in a rented car since train tickets previously booked kept getting cancelled. For the odd chance of being a woman who would have added unnecessary vexations (like locating a washroom whether it followed hygiene norms of the pandemic or not) to those prevailing, I had the comfort of flying to my new home. And yet, in my petulance, I was mutely ill at ease and on pins and needles by the time I reached the place.
In some remote past, the five-storied apartment complex bang in the middle of the eternal din of Park Circus wore a peachy appearance. The colour of crepe bandages, or more accurately, the flushed tint of pancake makeup fit only for theatre. Or blinding, bright lights. It had, although, come to look like every other building in the vicinity. Wrapped in a greyish brown shroud, the colour of slow death. But the back alley could turn the very same buildings into adolescents in total mockery of one’s judgement. For it was flanked by older edifices, some with years, probably of construction, from the nineteenth century engraved into their once-proud facades along with optimistic names like Azad Manzil. Wispy tree branches peeked out from the upper windows of one of these buildings. Another had a top floor full of abandoned furniture guarded by empty frames. People continued to occupy its lower floors. One or two seemed deserted. No one looked out from behind the exquisitely carved, dust-smothered, wooden railings of its balconies.
The apartment complex I then moved into had two security personnel half-present on the premises on alternate days. Too old to be able to guard anything, including their own bodies, they stared at nothing in particular when awake, or snored away the weight of vacant time in a perpetual state of limbo. It would be a crime to put their age and the word, ‘work’ in the same sentence. In the parking lot which, at best, could house five cars, there would be, at any point of time, double that number jam-packed against each other. Getting one car out often involved a group activity which necessitated the removal of a few other vehicles parked in all possible directions. And the drivers sulked, stared at their screens, or bantered among themselves while, through all of that, they did what they must have picked up young. They waited.
Behind that parking lot, the narrow foyer lay sunken a few inches into the ground. And there in the foyer was the building’s central attraction, a temperamental elevator that sat opposite to the entry gate. With its steadily rusting, collapsible shutters, it had a distinctly sinister air. A gaping metal maw, like one of those hideous contraptions in a Piranesi etching.
Then again, none of this was new to me, was it? Either here or elsewhere? From my usual perch in its only balcony, although sandwiched between a dancing washing machine and an empty gas cylinder, although only after peeling back the mosquito proofing which doled out a perforated world, I had certainly stared at the older buildings in awe. Without doubt, I had marvelled at their age from the comfortably aloof, whimsical sentiment of a visitor, and felt time coiled therein pulling me into the mystique of its silences. An unnameable frisson of tenderness, their proximity had sparked in the light of which, I could overlook other things. Maybe all of that moved apart, and formed a new pattern like figures one sees on bathroom tiles because I was expected to stay put. Or maybe the blinkers on me from the outset of that journey let me see only what I wished to see.
As a matter of fact, what set my teeth on edge was the arrangement of affairs inside the apartment rather than outside, a situation only exacerbated by the discomfiting realisation that there was no singular entity on which all of it could be blamed. It was certainly more than double the size of my home back in Bangalore. But spaces tend to shrink, or expand depending on the energies they contain or allow. Walls tend to walk in, ceilings come down. I mourned, with a degree of pettiness I had believed I was incapable of, the balmy quiet of my home back in Bangalore, the little things on my desk– cheap replicas of other people’s imagination I liked to have around– and the freedom to look silly, idly stare at the spines in the shelves above, or allow myself to be led wherever they might. And all of that, together conjuring to existence, nothing concrete but a surrogate space inside the actual one in which I had felt alive. But how much vanity in the name of a desire for aliveness or beauty, that “serious trifle”, may be claimed in times of general turmoil? [ii]
As if to direct such frivolous questions to, I had a replacement object in my new place. Some previous occupant of the apartment had left behind an amulet with an indigo-coloured, rather smug-looking Buddha-face. It dangled from a steel knob on a fuse box in the living room. I wondered if it had fetched that person the good luck it is commonly believed to attract. But if it had, why was it left behind? Maybe because no deliverance had arrived. Or maybe out of kindness. Or maybe they just forgot. Anyhow, if certain objects have the power to restore silence in one’s immediate spaces of living, the little amulet had serious hurdles to face.
For the past twelve years or so (excluding the lockdown months), the apartment has had a caretaker who also moonlighted as the odd job person entrusted with the upkeep of a nearby guesthouse. Both places are owned by the same Kerala-based firm. And his work largely consisted in seeing to it that they had a passably inhabitable look. The latter had long been colonized, even before Kanhai landed the job, by nonhuman animals that scurry around in the dark that it usually remained shut. Unless some credulous soul arrived to unintentionally give the rodents company, which would be when a cosmetic makeover would be performed to make a room look liveable for a night or two. Short and stocky, his ever-ready smile outshining the gleam of the many silver rings on his fingers, Kanhai had very early mastered the fine art of flattery necessary for survival among people with privileges like ‘job-security’, or those like me who think idleness is their special right, whose idea of work consists in staring at the laptop screen, and chewing on their fingernails. He quickly picked up the basics of what we Malayalis like to call ‘authentic cuisine of Kerala’, and had long been perfecting culinary remedies to cure the homesickness of a couple of officers (we, Mallus are everywhere, aren’t we?), at my husband’s workplace. Since the Park Circus apartment had an airier kitchen, the long-established custom was to cook here, and take it to the respective dwellings of these men. Or else, the caretaker himself would be cooked in the wet Kolkata heat. What all of this entailed then was that Kanhai was such a constant presence in the apartment that I almost felt married to him. And he, the inveterate chatterbox with a certain penchant for pranking and me, a hopeless grouch, made such a fine pair.
His attempts to engage me in small talk, and unnecessarily praise possibly had their source in the apprehensions of a factotum with too many mouths to feed at home. I knew that this indeed was his situation. That, however, didn’t take the edge of my annoyance at him for being around all the time, and getting his work done. Had I been a person of fame or notoriety, with the crotchety mien my facial features agreed to convey without fail, I would have been perfect meme-material.
In many ways, it was as if I was catapulted back into childhood, the place-time of one’s earliest neurosis. I think of that village in central Kerala as a world with too many sense organs. There I had picked up nice tricks like the ability to suddenly turn invisible to avoid unwanted attention. There I had learnt that appearance and reality meant the same, that they will continue to mean the same because, after all, everything always depends on the impression you give to the rest of the world. The sunlit idyll of sanctimony rife with promises of all kinds of deliverance and beliefs essential for tweaking the world to your eyes. But once you have failed a few expectations, you realise that those promises, although well-intentioned, were measures for handling the present, and had little truck with the future. But by then, too many holes had been punched into an image in a steady process of disfigurement.
Although like everything else, a fair assessment of that erosion also hit me late. I don’t know how far one can run away from one’s first world of being. But once questions of livelihood took me away to a bigger city, and I had the first taste of that relative degree of anonymity it allows not out of largesse but the indifference written into its functioning, and certainly in return for a price, I could toy with the idea of calling a corner mine. Maybe the idea of home consists in that bearable balancing act, of the outside and the inside [iii].
Anyway, Kanhai and I arrived at a truce of sorts once the subject of the old woman was broached. I quickly shelved for the moment my earlier judgement of him as a nagging gossip. The conversation was no longer a matter of a torrent of words on the one side and garbled grunts on the other. She, I now learnt, had a name in another life, most probably Subhadra. Maybe she too has forgotten by now. What I gathered, bit by bit, of her past from Kanhai, the two security guards, a couple of drivers awaiting errands in the parking lot, and a neighbour living in the same block of flats for the past two decades, is still a tattered fabric.
The story goes that roughly thirty or more years ago, on the plot of land now occupied by the apartment building, there stood a three-storied house, and Subhadra (let’s call her that) worked there as a full-time domestic help. Meanwhile, she was married to a truck driver from Jharkhand or Orissa (another uncertain detail). So little has remained of him in other people’s memory that he seems spectral. The couple, I’m told, didn’t have any children. And as for the whereabouts of the rest of her family in the city, none of the people I talked to remembered anything. To cut to the chase, the nameless truck driver went on a trip to a nameless place, and never returned. That’s another question, with no answer, left hanging in the air. Around the same time, the owners of the house sold their land to a builder in exchange for an apartment promised to them on the fourth floor along with an unknown amount of money. This set of circumstances, according to local grapevine, was the cause of her alleged derailment.
In any event, the couple who formerly owned the house is long dead, and the apartment they got in return came to be occupied by their daughter and her family. Subhadra was allowed to stay back, although not to reside in their home, and a windowless room of sorts on the rooftop was given to her. That being the case, she would sleep in this closet-like space only during the three cooler months, preferring the landing adjacent to the elevator well on the ground floor for the rest of the year. In the height of summer, I have often seen her resting on a straw mat under the only fan in the parking lot while the noisy city around that patchy rectangle went on with its business of being whatever it was at that point of time. Like a lost shoe lying face down on a busy road.
But that staircase, it seemed to me, was what she had left a definite stamp on. Animating a space that had little charm but belonged to everyone there in a general sense, she had turned it into a courtyard of sorts. Parked on the steps on any of the lower floors, there she would be, combing her hair, rolling betel leaves, chatting with someone, or having her meals. She did routine work like buying fresh greens from the market, or some such, for the family that had let her stay on. Every now and then, she would relieve the pensive security guards off their duty: opening the gates to let the impatient cars pass; giving directions for parking; chasing away itinerant sellers of plastic containers, miracle potions for balding pates, or life insurance policies; or those that came with printed cards carrying signatures of important people declaring someone in their family to be genuinely in need of help.
Chasing people away, according to Kanhai, was her special skill. A tale he often repeated with visible relish relates one such incident, possibly the most sensational grist for the gossip mills regarding her mental health. It concerns a former tenant, a middle-aged man he referred to always and only as ‘Masterji’. That mode of address seems to have stuck because some years ago, the man used to give tuition lessons to a bunch of children in the neighbourhood. He apparently liked to get Subhadra all riled up. The matter somehow escalated into a local scandal when, after a particularly charged encounter, she marched to the nearby police station, and filed a complaint. And the arrival of a couple of constables a few days later to check on the matter has gone down as the one thrilling episode in the history of the building. The case was eventually dropped but whether the run-ins between the two resumed after the incident is unclear. Masterji anyhow continued to tutor his students until he moved out some unspecified time later. In Kanhai’s telling, that was the outcome of the scuffle between the two. And she evidently didn’t get thrown out. Nonetheless, the affair helped to cement the common consensus about her mental condition.
Whenever some random occurrence or the other disrupted the general life of the building, she would be present in the thick of things, radiating a kind of energy otherwise difficult to associate with her emaciated frame. Like when the water taps hissed ancient secrets, turned mute for over a week, and the place was buzzing with an uncommon urgency, she was right there with those who helmed the situation. It was as if she had suddenly turned ubiquitous in her resourcefulness. Again, once when an old resident long confined to a wheelchair by a cardiac stroke passed, and a prayer meeting was held in the parking lot, she stood by a pillar a few steps away from the mourners for the entire ceremony. The priest who guided the wake struggled in the disorienting heat to maintain the austere look he wore. People trickled in, paid their respects, and drifted away. Someone offered water to the grieving wife who shifted positions in her seat several times to make her stiff knees cooperate. A baby registered its protest with a long wail. Subhadra, it seemed to me, did not miss any of that. I watched her watching.
My encounters with her were frequent. It was either on the stairs, or in the parking lot that I bumped into her most often while I took little Theo out for a walk. And he, unfettered by the limits of human habits of communication, would preen and wag his happy tail while she stroked his coat, or puppy-talked to him. That being the case, he continued to terrorize the cats that dawdled around her often. One day, I clambered all the way up to the rooftop partly to inspect the place in general, partly to snoop on her life in that part of the building. The top-floor landing looked like a common dumping place for all kinds of things which somehow couldn’t be binned for whatever reason: upholstery from old furniture, a pink tricycle with a missing pedal, a sheet of polystyrene flashing the words, “Happy Anniversary” in cursive curls, and underneath that two entwined rose stems without thorns drawn in an unsteady hand. In addition to these, there were two big cartons stuffed with old magazines. Wedged into the space between the boxes were metal parts of some unknown device. And behind the cartons, long strips of plywood were stacked against the wall. They stood leaning towards a corner, their top ends awaiting the pull of gravity, or the mischief of rats. A thick blanket of dust lay undisturbed on the whole scene. And the narrow column of light that escaped the half-moon window, generously festooned with dust balls and cobwebs accumulated over the years, only managed to make it all the more dismal. A person climbing up or down had just enough inches to plant their feet. One at a time. I almost wafted up like a sigh, unnoticed.
Tell-tale signs of a life in progress were all around on the rooftop. Two dented, aluminium buckets with soaked clothes sat under a tap. A steel plate and a bowl left upside down on a three-foot high cement slab glinted in the eye-smiting light. Around its edges were wafer-thin slivers of a blue washing soap, wrinkled, and hardened by the sun. An assortment of empty plastic bottles with their labels intact, possibly given away by someone, lay heaped in a corner. Her frayed saris flapped in the wind on the only clothesline. Next to the latched door of her room, a wooden chair with no backrest was pushed against a wall. An empty cardboard box sat on it, gawping at the blazing sky. Everything I saw on the vast flatness of that rooftop seemed diminished in size like miniature furniture in a doll’s house.
Her first conversation with me was an extension of her words to Theo although not in the same tone. Aren’t dogs natural claimants of that tongue? I remember mumbling in Hindi about my ignorance of her language. It had no visible effect on her. Neither then, nor later. She would just go on talking, laugh with her crinkly eyes, her heavily paan-stained mouth like a lone boat on a furrowed sea. Her tones sometimes changed abruptly. More often, she would ask what sounded from her intonation like questions. My awkward responses mostly were a clueless smile.
A few days later, we progressed to a conversation of sorts in the parking lot when she extended her right palm to me, and said “mishti doi” [iv] while pointing to a restaurant next door. No one can live in Kolkata without knowing what those two words mean. Soon we were talking, although without conveying much, in two languages— her musical Bangla and my pidgin Hindi full of gaps. Sometimes she would borrow my phone, and speak into the device in a loud voice, her speech interspersed with much gesticulation. No need to key in a number when there’s no one at the other end. Often, she would ring the doorbell continuously, and just walk away grinning at whoever happened to open the door. It often caused a flurry of irritation. I didn’t always humour her by opening the door.
Now and again, impassioned exchanges between her and others in the parking lot would drift up in the air. At times, it would go on for a while, and soon take over the by-lane behind the building. According to Kanhai, it was Akbar, one of the drivers, who nettled her often with snide comments on her mental state. Akbar, on the other hand, had the opinion that if anything, Kanhai was the leader of the jeering party. My neighbour believed that all the men in the parking lot were to be blamed. One of the security guards, embarrassed by my prying question, said it was no one in particular, that it was one of those things that simply kept happening. Then one day, Subhadra stormed to my husband while he was on his way to work, and uncurled an angry speech mentioning the caretaker’s name more than once.
The man of course made a declaration of his innocence and lamented the impropriety with which she had “troubled” his boss. But the incident was emotionally charged enough to pique my interest, and draw me out of my usual despondency. And the more I thought about it, the greater the fillip of energy pulsing in my veins. True enough it is that my curiosity about the woman until then may be said to have had an amorphous outline. Maybe it hadn’t been all that innocent even then given that I’m not sure, if I hadn’t also felt some relief that I wasn’t in her place yet. It is a natural response, yes, but that’s also the whole point perhaps. That it is possible to feel the satisfaction that the distance between myself and the object of my sympathy suggests [v], even as I could still claim to have concern for her. Indeed, can one clearly know what all stimuli work behind one’s impulses at a single point in time, how many of them at once, and at what velocities?
Anyhow, whatever my image of her had been, it now featured a three-dimensional definiteness. I cannot retrospectively retrace the exact progression of my thoughts then. But this much may be said, at some unknown point, my prior, yet to be verbalized resentment towards Kanhai had found a satisfying release, and which, in turn, deepened my feelings for her. I fretted, that can’t be me, can it? I wanted a better image of myself. Neither that question, nor that desire I could shake off. Together they stripped the protective dust sheet off my melancholy, the preciousness of the writer’s needs I had held on to, revealing a nakedness I would rather not look at. Even so, I didn’t always acknowledge that thought. Maybe I have a secret stash of guile when it comes to intimate needs.
That being said, the caretaker and I did not end up as best friends forever. Only that my monosyllabic grunts were fewer when we cooked together. Maybe in his life away from his places of work, the need to flatter did not matter. The truth is that I don’t know what to make of him. He brought over his little girl once, and she fell in love with Theo. Also, thanks to Kanhai’s blather, I can relay enough stories about Uttam Kumar’s “spiritual relationship” with Suchitra Sen.
As for her, I continued to watch from a distance. And yet, I have seen as little of that mind of hers, as of her room on that rooftop I did not step into, the insides of which, in my imagination seemed like a locker cupboard in which the woman and her things jostled for space, where concerns of everyday survival outran aesthetic pleasures. Or perhaps she too has secured a surrogate corner of her own therein.
Be that as it may, I know nothing about all the ways in which she has struggled to accommodate herself in a world that wouldn’t accommodate itself in her mind. I suppose it takes a great deal of self-certainty to assume, and not just imagine that one could not only think and feel from another’s shoes, but also walk all the roads they have walked so that their experience may be perfectly translated. It’s not a comfortable thought but then not everything is about comfort. And it points to the vanity that undergirds assumptions of understanding and the salve of quick and safe sympathies [vi]. Although from a different tangent and not so darkly, Simone Weil raises a similar doubt about people who claim to possess the capacity of paying attention, for what she calls the effort of attention is an impersonal attuning that cannot allow any sense of self-congratulation, as the emptying of the bulimic self is the means of doing such work [vii]. She doesn’t rule out the possibility of understanding but the bind, here again, is circular.
This inextricable bind is what another, although fictional thinker wakes up to on his 44th birthday [viii]. The implacable thought that takes Korin the archivist to the edge of thinking itself is this: that the puzzling out of the world is no exclusive act, that it inevitably is an attempt to solve the puzzle of the world and the self at once. That all promises of mastering the self, tag along with it, the impossible project of mastering the world. And along with this recognition comes his suspicion that something indeed was wrong with his head. Maybe as the darkest of such puzzlers that I’m familiar with lays it bare without ceremony: “we die without knowing the exact nature of our own secret” [ix]. Those of the world too, by extension, in that case. That as in the popular children’s puzzle of the rabbit that has lost its way in a jungle, the many meanderings within the maze presume the useful fiction of the sole correct path of the accommodated self. Why indeed does the etymology of madness suggest dislocation? Derangement may take many shapes, but madness as a catch-all category has to contend with an idea of order that has too many good words on its side.
Tell me, how many antonyms are there in your language for the adjective ‘mad’?
It has been pointed out that the link between Weil’s social thought and mysticism consists in a single recognition: if ‘I’ is already ‘an other/another’ (a phrase she borrowed from Rimbaud), it inevitably has implications on the othered self’s relation to others [x]. Maybe what it hints at is the suppleness of wonder that can stop easy pieties from being taken for compassion. I suppose there’s something in the somewhat sheepish realisation that one needn’t be the protagonist of every story one is a part of, or ends up collecting. Maybe we are left with snatches of stories with frayed ends. Visions gathered without clear sight, images that tremble at the edges. They may not stay the same, nor come with tabs and respective blanks that nicely interlock. Maybe that’s all the more reason to stay with this teeming, throbbing, often stupefying world, even as it denies the possibility of perfect solutions.
If I were to pick a single image of Subhadra from those days, it would be this. On some evenings, there she would be on the busy pavement, occupying one of those bleached out plastic chairs dragged outside the parking lot. Her legs crossed, and tucked underneath her haunches. Her worn-out cloth mask pulled down, and slid under her chin. Leisurely popping peanuts into her mouth, and contemplating the city in the dying light. All of her fitting into the semicircle of that chair, except for her splayed toes that jutted out an inch or two. Free and alone at once. Before her, the city would soon fold into itself like an umbrella. Flocks of birds were flying in from everywhere, making patterns in the sky. They formed a wave-like murmuration high above. And soon disappeared from vision. Huddled silhouettes of people, a steady stream of them, and each, trailing a world, milled about in the dimming light. But the mall, a few paces to the right, had just woken up. Lit up like a lurid Christmas tree, it flaunted giddy substitutes for meaning. The hesitant moon above it was no match. Across the road, the paanwallah’s shack leaned further into the shadow of the rundown tenement behind it, pulling along weary souls in dire need of temporary release. A pale blue curtain billowed into a second-floor apartment of that building, spilling out an incandescent stare. There, on one of its balconies, someone had recently covered an entire wall with a painting: an assortment of leaves— plantain, and palm among others— way larger than their real-life counterparts. A giant orange flower drooped down from its exact middle. Above the foliage, above its single flower, lay three lines of LED lights in curved rows which blinked one string at a time. Each one of those strings came to life, and then passed it on in endless repetition, turning the image behind into a ghostly movie clip. The leaves and its capacious heart kept falling in one swoop but would return to life suddenly, reclaiming their slotted position, only to repeat the process all over again.
I don’t know what she saw when she watched.
Two years later when I ran down the stairs for the last time, there was no tremendous sense of exultation. I had stopped counting. Yes, meanwhile, the days had grown shorter, and the nights thankfully longer. Then, they exchanged habits. A few months before we started packing things, my husband had lost his father to the virus. This time, admittedly, there were fewer regrets. Sometime then, I chanced upon a “mad tree” that stood within the premises of the Calcutta National Library. I wouldn’t have noticed it, hadn’t a friend pointed at it with a sparkle in his eyes, and said: “Look, its leaves are of different sizes and shapes”. I’m glad that he did. They indeed were. Is that a thing that counts? Or one I should recount here? I’m not sure.
And so my relief at leaving was just that, relief that was tempered with a foggy sense of loss. Kanhai was waiting downstairs with my bag which he had insisted on carrying. And I hadn’t protested too much. I had thought that I would say goodbye to Subhadra the way a child would. I had wondered if she would point to the restaurant again and say “mishti doi”. She didn’t. She just wasn’t there in the parking lot.
Maybe in a city of perpetual disrepair, it is possible to gauge how moth-eaten you are in comparison. I like to think that what it stole from me was the comfort of old certainties. Maybe you need to be in a city of “grand delusions” to lose something like that [xi]. Or maybe that’s a delusion I stole from it, adding it to the ones already there. Maybe I’m still hiding behind them. What would have she said to that? To all of that? I wish she had told me. I wish I had asked.
[i] War and War. Translated by George Szirtes, Tusker Rock Press, 2016, p. 4.
[ii] Chateaubriand, Francois-Rene. Memoirs From Beyond the Grave 1768-1800. Translated by Alex Andriesse, NYRB, 2018, p. 21.
[iii] Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas, Penguin, 2014, p. 21.
[iv] A popular dessert made from sweetened yoghurt.
[v] Weil, Simone. First and Last Notebooks. Translated by Richard Rees, Oxford University Press, 1970.
[vi] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann, Vintage, 1974.
[vii] Zaretsky, Robert. The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas. The University of Chicago Press, 2021.
[viii] Krasznahorkai, Laszlo. War and War. Translated by George Szirtes, Tusker Rock Press, 2016.
[ix] Cioran, E. M. Drawn and Quartered. Translated by Richard Howard, Arcade, 2012, p. 95.
[x] Simone Weil: An Anthology. Edited by Sian Miles, Penguin, 2005.
[xi] Hazra, Indrajit. Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata. Aleph, 2013.
Priya Dileep is a Contributor at Panorama