Saranya Ganguly, 2021
Gayatri had completely stopped eating in those last days. I’d often raise my head and look at her, only to find her staring at me. I felt ashamed. Of eating. Of the fact that I could still eat. Of the thought that in our square little government quarter provided by the Eastern Railways, the smell of rice hung in the air, but she wasn’t able to eat anything. I had married her for poetry, and she said that she had married me for food. She had said to me on several local train rides while we were still in college in Calcutta, that the food in my lunch box was the second most attractive thing about me. The most attractive thing was that I had cooked it myself.
Gayatri loved to eat without the restrictions of her home. Her father had been ailing for years, and since her middle school days she had only eaten his diet. Boiled. Sometimes unsalted, and, very occasionally, with no sides other than some cut slices of fried potato on festive days. She grew up seeing a mother who went to work, got back and went straight into the kitchen. Her father needed to eat every two to three hours and what he ate in consecutive meals had to be of a different colour. Beetroot had to follow a green gourd, ladies finger to precede brinjals, yellow gourd to follow carrots. With little, very little rice. Illness terrified her. She used to say that a chronic illness at home was so consuming that within two years of her father’s ailment the three of them ceased to have any real relationship. They were no longer a family. They were a group of two care givers and their common patient.
When we travelled by train through the city, she read her poems to me. The illness in her family might have denied her a rich palate of food but had stirred a banquet of feelings and words. She was always working on a poem. In her class, in the canteen, while walking to the railway station to meet me, a Triolet, an Epigram, a Ghazal were always the puzzle she was trying to solve. She had discovered the exhilaration of converting illness to verse from a Bangla teacher in school. Someone who had told her that poetry was the only means by which humans can transcend the limitations of smell. That it was through this that she could find an escape from the stench of tablets, capsules, syrups and bedpans. One could not cook in a house where there was no door between the patient’s bed and the dining table. In her house there wasn’t.
When I met Gayatri, I was an average student of 2nd year History Honors who lived alone in the big city. My father was a school headmaster in a district high school who had sent me away with two pairs of clothes, a monthly allowance of Rs 2500 and three collections of the poet Joy Goswami. My mother had died when I was 13, and, since then, my father had communicated with me either through standing instructions or through Joy Goswami. I travelled through the city and through life with one of these collections always in my bag. In this large city, where it felt like absolutely everyone had greater clarity than me, Joy da, as his readers call him, was my only relationship to my own existence in this world. His poetry had validated my thirst for the profound, a quest for the mysterious and a love for the banal. I was alone in a large world where everyone knew more than me, but one where everyone also knew less than him. I was in love with him, and I knew through his poems that to love and have desire for one’s poet was not taboo. That a lot that has been banished from the world of my college teacher, my landlord, the owner of the tea stall downstairs and my father, was still alive and thrived in the world of my poet.
Gayatri and I had met on a train. She was sitting next to me and working out a poem. I was opening my lunchbox. We were married four years later.
In Dinajpur we set up home in our small railway quarter. She joined the post office as a middle grade officer and I joined the railways as a lower division clerk. She wrote poetry every evening, and I cooked every possible food that had ever appeared in a poem. From Sukumar Ray to Jibananda to contemporary poets like Anindita and Srijato, whether they mentioned food in despair, horror, lust or absurdity, we found a way to get it on our table. Every few nights she read a draft of what she was working on. As she read her couplets, sonnets and kirtans, I could tell that she was falling ill. Her fear of losing appetite and being bedridden like her father was permeating through the silences in her poems. They were rapidly changing from being the silence of a girl observing a teeming compartment to that of someone who was keenly watching a glucose drip. Her love poems were becoming poems of rage, her longing was turning into bitterness, her sense of nature was veering to a crisis of existence. She started looking at me I imagined the way her father looked at them. She was disgusted by the medicines, the syrups and the tablets that she chewed and then spat out. One evening, at dinner, she asked for boiled peas. I got up from the table to put them on the stove and she said, ‘It’s disgusting that you do not know what a poet eats.’
I had been cooking every day for a year of her illness. She had not written a word of poetry since then.
At that moment I realized what might eventually take her life. That I had not loved her ever since she had stopped writing. That I deeply craved for the love of someone who helped me transcend my small existence. That my love and her words had dried up at the same moment.
I had also realized that she was never a great poet. Her writing was amateurish, her desire to write, at the most, greater than her peers. By the time we had moved to Dinajpur, she was actually only someone I cooked for.
My father had recognized how heartless I was and had sent me away with another person’s words. He had never promised me anything, and hence I could never have anything against him. But here was the promise of belonging and poetry which had turned around one evening and said to me ‘You don’t know what a poet eats.’
I brought her boiled peas in a bowl. She moved the dinner plate aside and ate the peas in silence. I finished my food in silence.
To her it felt like the home she had wanted to escape and to me it felt like the childhood I wanted to rescue myself from.
Joy da has written a lot about love. About lovers who meet in small rooms and railway crossings to die by suicide together. About lovers who are married to other partners and who invite each other to run away from their village and flee to the end of the world once the woman’s husband goes to work. About a young girl’s love for a man called Benimadhob, in a school affair that ended before starting. About lovers who remain together through all the uncertainties and deliberate cruelties of life.
I looked through all his books again that night. The night after and then several nights after. Nowhere did I find anything about the moment when one realizes that they are not lovers at all. What do those lovers do who recognize that they are back to what they wanted to escape? Nowhere has Joy da written about what one does with people who write poems but are not poets and cooks who are reduced to boiling peas.
After a few nights of searching and several days of broken promises at the dinner table, Gayatri stared at me while I was eating. The entire time. She had grown pale, her eyes looked like nests of maggots and her jaw resembled her father’s picture before his cremation. Her bowl of boiled peas was in front of her, and she was squashing them between her fingers. ‘Don’t do that,’ I said. ‘I’m the one who’ll have to clean them.’
‘You sound like my mother,’ she said. After that we were both silent. It was a silence like that of my father.
She was running a high fever. I kept giving her a cold press on her forehead and she kept pushing my hand away. She felt insulted, I think, by being cared for by someone who no longer loved her. Rather by someone who had discovered that he had never loved her in the first place.
The room in Dinajpur’s railway colony reeked of medicines and sweat. I could barely keep my eyes open. There was also the anger about having to go back to office the next day. To have to wake up in the morning, cook my lunch, cook her food for the afternoon, clean the house, arrange her medicines and then go to work. In office, people would praise me by comparing me with heroes from epics. Sacrifice is a virtue of Indian culture. Everyone wants someone else to be its mascot.
I hadn’t grown up on epics. In poetry a person does unreasonable things. Reasonable suffering is melodrama. Archaic, boring, insidious and banal. Believers cherish the content in suffering. Poets cherish the form.
Gayatri had believed she was a poet and had made the amateur error of mistaking her desire for escape in content as a love for form. The day she was met with the inescapable mirror of adult life, she understood the limits of her poetic stake. I saw her gradually develop a hatred for Joy da, for poetry, and for me. They were all an extension of her hatred for repetition. But repetition is the bare minimum of poetry. One can be a poet by denying metaphor, but one cannot deny the humility of the repeating phrase. No music, no painting, no relationship, and no meal can exist without embracing this banality. Our inability to do so made both of us incapable of poetry.
Within the waft of tablets, syrups and cold press cloth, for the first time Gayatri wet her bed. She looked at me helplessly. I placed my left hand on her right shoulder and turned her reassuringly. For a moment we were one. This was our life and we had accepted it.
I turned her gently and the thought crossed my mind that this was not my life. I had had my share of losses. Of tragedy, of despair and of living with a father who I had to father most of my life. Here again was the same future staring at me. I had become Gayathri’s father now. The father of another ungrateful person who would design a filial relationship where no matter what one did, the father was to fail. I did not say anything. Did not change my touch or my gaze. I just thought, as privately and as humanly possible. The kind of privacy that another decent human being is not supposed to pierce through. She suddenly grabbed my arm, removed it gently from her back and wailed all night. Much like the wail she described that her father let out in his last days. I sat unmoved and stared at her much like the description of her mother.
Joy da has never mentioned that couples should not share all the stories of their past with each other. After a while it becomes impossible to know which memories are one’s own. If what one hates is one’s own helpless childhood or the perpetual muddling up with the other’s stories.
I left next morning. Packed a bag. Some clothes and five books of poetry. Gayatri was finally asleep.
Left two big bowls of boiled peas by her side. Irresponsibly. Without a spoon. At the edge of the table.
I switched off my phone. Had a word with the section officer and went back to Calcutta. I left one book of poetry by Gayatri’s side. A lesson from my father. Leave with souvenirs and silences.
Saranya Ganguly, 2021
It has been a year since I moved here to Ranaghat. Three since I left Gayatri. In Calcutta I continued to work in the Railways. In a faraway station commuting for hours every day. In a big city I thought I could escape the guilt of having lived, although I did not know if she had died.
I sent an Inland letter to my father asking him to no longer write letters to our Dinajpur address. He replied telling me all about a new ‘satsang’ he had joined. About how he had finally made his peace with the idea of loneliness. There are people all over railway compartments who are in a train to merely escape being lonely. The monotony of a train, the passing of the same trees and houses every day, the linearity of a train moving on a track gives them an impression that one can be deeply lonely and yet be moving forward at the same time. Time and distance are the metrics of growing up. How long was one around? How far did they get? What we do not notice is the ocean of loneliness engulfing a person, year after year, route after route, from father to lover to wife to co passengers. Everyone finds other lonely people to look at on these journeys. When two sets of vacant eyes meet each other, an illusion of companionship is formed. Looking in trains is an act seeking someone who looks back. People who no one looks at, at home, come to trains to find people who will look back. It is life affirming to be seen. Trains are always full not because people are going somewhere but because people want to be looked at.
After a year, when I received no news of Gayatri’s death, I assumed she was alive. Her mother never called me, our friends never reached out. Nothing. I had left and it was over. Perhaps for her.
I was trapped in her memory. Every day the commute reminded me of her. The lunchbox reminded me of her. Poetry reminded me of her, but I thought of her the most while cooking.
Even if I had never loved her, I had cooked for her. Ordinary love of ordinary people like me is not about what we feel but about what we do. To be able to love someone more than rudimentary daily chores requires one to have memory and experience of that kind of greater love from one’s childhood. Since I had none, I never loved her outside of what we did. Neither had she.
The moment I entered the kitchen, cut onions, poured the mustard oil and added the chilies, my mind would go to Gayatri. She had stopped composing poems in our relationship, but I hadn’t stopped cooking. The fear of running into her engulfed me every passing day. I would shudder to think about what would happen if I ran into her in the next local train. What if, as I opened my lunch box in my office, I saw her standing at the platform outside looking in through the window, unable to grasp how I could still eat.
I was unable to escape the fear of being found. To face the gaze of a person who had stopped looking. The accusations of someone who had completely vanquished all signs of expectation.
I went back to Joy da. His poems are full of people like me who do not do simple things right and then harbor sophisticated guilts. Poets, I believe, thrive on the inadequacies of the ordinary.
In his poems people like me dream of eternal love and escape when it surfaces. This is the fate of his readers. We are all nurtured by this bearded madman, who himself lives happily with his wife in a house full of ordinary love but leaves us with the exploits of his imagination. I was cooking one day and his book was by my side. On the back cover I saw his picture under which it said that he lived in Ranaghat. A few days ago, our supervisor, Binayak babu, had spoken of an opening as a middle division clerk in Ranaghat railway station.
It was time for me to escape again. I had escaped my father’s silence and my wife’s gaze. This time I knew I had only one place to go to. To be where my poet was.
I came here a year ago. Again, with two sets of clothes and five books of Joy Goswami’s poems. Ranaghat’s rail bazaar was immortalized by Bibhutibhushan in Adarsh Hindu Hotel. The protagonist Hajari is a cook in a small restaurant, and the descriptions of his cooking can make a person eat multiple meals while reading the novel. When I came here and enquired about Joy da, I realized that no one in our railway department had heard of him. They kept telling me that I was confusing someone with the great Bibhutibhushan, someone who had placed Ranaghat on the world map through his brilliant prose. People who do not read remember writers for such banal functions of literature. They think art is here to serve the bogus function of validating a people. They do not like poets because they cannot find protagonists. They affirm stories which they say they can relate to, as if any writer worth his salt has had the time or patience to keep them in mind.
I insisted that I was not talking about Bibhutibhushan but a real writer, a poet called Joy Goswami. Everyone drew a blank till, two days ago, when Sukhomay came up to me with further proof that my only companion in this life is this poet.
Day before was a Saturday. I was heading to the bazaar to buy fish for lunch. As I was locking the door, I saw an inland letter that had fallen out of the letter box. I picked it up and started to sweat. The handwriting was only too familiar. I sat down on the steps with my shopping bag. For a long time, I sat there frozen, unable to open the letter or tear it away. After some time, I remembered that Sukhomay was waiting for me at the market. We were to go to the barber and then come back to have lunch together. Sukhomay loves my cooking and often comes home on Saturday. He is from Malda and, like me, lives alone in Ranaghat.
I kept the inland letter in my pocket and cycled to the bazaar. Sukhomay was waiting for me next to the barber shop. The moment he saw me he pulled out a newspaper from under his armpit. We looked at the article. Joy Goswami was coming to the Railway Bazaar the next day. He was going to launch an anniversary edition of Bibhutibhushan’s novel and talk about the food in it.
‘This is your opportunity,’ said Sukhomay. ‘Cook something for him and bring it in your tiffin box. After all you are not an ordinary fan. I am sure he will become your friend from the time he eats your cooking.’
I took the newspaper from Sukhomay. We had the haircut. I told him I wasn’t well.
I reached home, sat on the only chair in my living room with the unopened inland letter in my pocket, the newspaper in my hand and an empty shopping bag.
I opened the letter. The handwriting was unmistakably hers. She had sent a recipe.
I knew I had been exorcised. She cooked now. Herself.
I looked at the room I was in. It had been a year, and yet all I had was a single chair. What happened when Sukhomay came? Where did we sit?
I noticed that there was a chair in the kitchen. A chair that came with the house. On which I had kept a vegetable basket. I walked up to it and removed the basket. Looked at it for some time. I looked around and thought, what does the poet eat? In his poems we have learnt of his school, his childhood, his office. The routes he takes, the trams, buses and trains he inhabits. But we know nothing about his kitchen. Nothing about the sound of vessels, the chopping of onions, the frying of fish.
Do they cook together, he and his wife? Is it such a complete moment that he no longer feels lonely enough to be able to write about it? Or does he write when he feels hungry? Does he starve himself ever so slightly to write?
I took the chair from the kitchen and brought it to the living room. Placed it in front of my chair. For the first time since I had left Gayatri, I had a room where two people were encouraged to face each other. Two hungry people. Consumed by all kinds of hunger.
I still did not know what he ate. I still did not know if meeting him would make me less lonely.
I looked at Gayatri’s recipe. She had mentioned the ingredients. But she hadn’t mentioned the measures to be used.