Them in the City

Something or the other is always happening in Calcutta.

Many of these events would be quite outside the scope of my experiences in the US and yet here they seem to fit in so seamlessly with the daily course of things. The events I’m talking about could be as simple as an altercation with an autorickshaw-wallah regarding the lack of change while paying the fare or hearing of a hanuman (big monkey) sighted on my street in the early morning sitting and eating kachori at a popular roadside stall with other customers (even while in many ways city life here is in no way different from anywhere else in the world as people use smartphones and laptops and commute to work on buses and cars and the underground metro).

Here’s a really unexpected event that occurred this week which reinforces my belief that if you’re looking for stories, there’s no better place in the world to come to than our very own Calcutta!

On Monday evening, my parents are about to leave for the market. I am ready to see them off when we open the door to an unexpected sight.

Our very long term domestic help P’s saree is strewn all over the landing between the main doors of the two apartments that face each other. A bunch of black hair, clearly cut with a pair of scissors, is strewn on the floor next to it.

The hair looks dark and glossy and freshly cut.

It isn’t as if by themselves all these items are anything unusual. But when strewn on the floor like this, especially next to human hair, it brought to mind scenes of terrible events that may have occurred somewhere in the building when everyone was lost in their siestas.

We are alarmed at first and then terrified.

Other members of the family rush out of their rooms and we start expressing our concerns loudly. None of us verbalized it but all of us were thinking, is it P? Is it P? It occurs to me that we should call P on her cell phone to see where she is. After some confusion as two people start calling her simultaneously in their alarm, P is reached.

P has no idea what the hullaballoo is all about. She is washing floors as usual at a close by house.

Since this occurred on the second floor of a three story building, one of us climbs a few steps to check upstairs. A loud scream is heard from her as she rushes down.

There’s a petticoat strewn on the top floor and more black hair cut with scissors.

We go down a floor. More hair.

At first, we think it’s a stray dog that climbed up to the terrace somehow and dragged a plastic bag full of P’s stuff thinking it was food. But aside from the fact that dogs can smell food and wouldn’t usually tear at, leave alone carry down a bag of clothes, no one could explain the human hair.

After a while P comes back into the apartment. When the initial excitement is over, I tell her that maybe she should collect her saree and petticoat and prepare to wash them and then take them home. She seems strangely disinclined to do so.

Very soon, she tells me her saree is gone. She has collected her clothes and thrown them away.

Later on, while making rotis, P completely dismisses the theory of the dog culprit. She has another hypothesis which, according to her, explains everything. Saree, petticoat, hair, time of occurrence, person targeted–she.

The cause, according to her, is professional rivalry.

“This is the work of no dog,” says P as she warms the food. “I know who is behind this.”

Apparently, M is a domestic help who works in some of the other apartments here and has been carrying a vendetta against P for some time having been dismissed from one of the households on account of P’s machinations, as she wrongly supposed during the event.

“M has been sulking everytime she’s met me on the stairs and won’t talk to me,” says P. “I bumped into her this week too.”

It is M, P is certain, who has treated the hair and also perhaps the clothes with some jhaar phook (our local version of black magic) for revenge and left them lying around so grotesquely.

And yet, in some contradiction to this hypothesis, P offers me another explanation sometime later as she chats while making tea.

Didi, I didn’t want to tell you this since you go to the terrace every other evening,” she tells me.

Indeed I had been going to the terrace almost everyday for some peaceful contemplation recently preferring the solitude there to the din of the city streets. I had even blogged about it!

“What’s on the terrace”? I say.

““It isn’t as it seems there,” P tells me conspiratorially. “On the hot summer afternoons last year, I used to sleep there. My hair used to be spread on the floor just so. One day, I dreamt that someone was telling me “Remove your hair. I’m going to put my foot on your throat.” I heard that voice twice. It wasn’t human.””

P speaks in Bengali and so is better able to represent the words of the Voice as the Voice uses the second person informal “tui” in place of “your” to imply the dismissive tone that most spirits use to address earthly beings in Bengali.

“Another day,” P continues her tale, ““ I heard a child cry under the stairs on the first floor. I rushed down shouting “Paro, is that you? Is that you”? There was no one.””

I am not scared. I think more on the lines of human interference since our apartment building is located in a narrow lane in a very populated part of Calcutta where you will find people of all ages walking up and down at almost all hours of the day and night. And even within the apartments, there’s always plenty of people from multiple generations of family members to domestics to rickshawallahs to drivers to courier service people to internet and cable providers always coming in to check in on you.

It is as if there’s hardly any space for people in the city.

So you’d hardly expect the city to make space for non-people here. Even them.

And yet our neighbourhood seemed to take on another dimension for me since P’s story.

Later, the cook too agreed with P. She said she sensed them frequently in the city.  A tree, for example, had been cut down to construct a bathroom where she lived. It was clear to her that one of them had been living on that tree. As evidence, it had been observed (and hence was common knowledge now) that whenever someone went to use that restroom, the electric light would always flicker and even a hurricane lamp with a full tank of kerosene was wont to burn out inside. Apparently, one of them frequently threw pebbles at her mother when she would be standing alone in the courtyard and combing her hair. The cook had seen shadows herself pass by her window looking like one of her recently deceased employers.

What was most remarkable was that even as the cook related all these events, she continued her frying and chopping and boiling at breakneck speed since we were one of the three or four households she cooked at in the neighbourhood. She had to finish by lunchtime everywhere.

When there was lots of light in the afternoon the next day, I persuaded P to come with me to investigate the terrace. I took a hockey stick while P took the keys. I imagined all sorts of hidden bodies and broken locks and even the Voice as expected encounters there but alas, there was nothing. The terrace was as peaceful as always. The sky was dark and it was about to rain.

So we used the hockey stick to pull a branch of the nearby neem tree that bent over the railing to pluck some leaves to fry and eat for lunch the next day.

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10 thoughts on “Them in the City”

  1. A good story about people all interacting, but coming from different places in their sense of reality. I love the way P seems to accept the rather alarming events and sets about making plausible (for her) explanations of the possible causes.

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  2. You show us the many realities overlaid upon one another, yet you suspend judgement, celebrating all aspects of life in that great city. Love it: not only the main story, the details as well, such as using a hockey stick (I remember mine–a left-handed one) to snag the branch of a neem tree.
    While I was last in Mumbai I had a similarly stratling (though not as mysterious) experience of a landing. I opened the door of my flat to find the entire landing covered with fresh fish and two fisherwomen at work sorting and/or cleaning them.

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    1. Glad you liked it! The fisherwomen story is remarkable!

      I believe an imp aspect of good storytelling is suspension of judgement. People exist and function in their different realities and one must be able to capture their different perspectives to create convincing moments. In this case, both the ladies I mention here are remarkably strong and independent women in different ways and I respect them although I must say I don’t share many of their convictions regarding “them.”

      Liked by 1 person

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