Long after the man with green coconuts has come to my door, holding out a coconut with his right hand, his body and head just a little bowed towards me as if this were a ritual, and perhaps it is, between him and me; after the schoolchildren at the church school have all run out in a rush, flowing over the steps and the slope and gone home, their mothers sometimes waiting for them all day on the church steps; after the vegetable seller at six and the fruit seller a few minutes later have parked their carts next to each other so that it is easy for their customers and so they can share stories in the lull when no one comes; after the gym has closed with its slim women in track suits and Lycra so unsuited to this weather, and the long imported cars parked in front of it have driven away; after the trainers at the gym, Iqbal and Bernard, have finished their work and Iqbal is perhaps doing his namaz on the wooden floor of the gym and Bernard is packing his things; and Bernard told me the other day when I was there that whatever you do here is fine, but really the best thing you can do is to go walk by the sea at sunrise, what can be better than that; after all the thin maidservants with protruding bones and a hurried walk have finished their jobs of cooking and cleaning that will fill their whole lives till the very end; after the tiny yellow birds have stopped flying in and out of the tamarind tree, making the ripe tamarinds shake and fall; after darkening shadows have taken away the old man who sits on his small balcony staring out all day, near his staring face a huge palm leaf swaying like an immense fan; after the sun has very, very slowly, moved down towards the horizon and finally descended into the Arabian Sea in a vehement orange glow and made it possible for the evening to begin, but only much after the church bell rings for evening prayers at seven, and even after they are over and people descend silently down the steps and the slope an hour later, so that the day is lopsided; and an immense moon rises behind the spire of the church; and in the plot next to the church four men sit around a fire and make chapattis amidst the stacked bamboo, marble and wood while nearby large rats wait for leftovers; and the chowkidars of the buildings cook their dented vegetables for a solitary dinner without their wives and children who are in the northern hills far away, so far that it takes six days to get there memsahib, and as the dinner cooks they play their wooden flutes, solitary notes and a few half formed melodies that the evening sea wind takes down the street to the corner store where young men smoke cigarettes; and the teenagers wearing spaghetti straps and shorts and baseball caps lean against cars and move their bodies exactly like the Americans they see on television; and eventually everything falls silent, and not every window has a light; and the candles at the foot of the statue of Mary at the bottom of the church steps and in the grotto on the left are all burning still, which means it is a good day for someone like me who likes to watch the flames but must depend on others to light them; and the mango, tamarind, gulmohur and peepul trees can hardly be distinguished from each other, although the moon has climbed higher leaving the spire of the church alone against the dark sky; the shadows of the palm fronds move slowly on the darkness of my wall, and the clouds slowly, slowly, over the sky; now the street takes a long breath and the candle flames on the church steps begin to tremble and the steps themselves; the trees lean close towards each other to form a forest, so that I could be wandering in its vastness away from the world, searching, searching for what ought to be my life but is not; emerge again, onto the street’s dark spine, wondering whether I wait to live or if waiting is also living; the street never forces a choice; it allows the alternation of insight and emptiness; when insight sharpens and has nowhere to go it turns into emptiness which slowly gathers strength to become insight again; now the street exhales, stirring the fallen leaves that choke the gutters, but keeping to itself the uncontrollable fluctuations beneath things, revealing only flames from Diwali and stars from Christmas, old couples who have settled a lifetime of differences and now walk together in great peace, the church bell which is loud enough to wake us at dawn if we are already aware of the half light, and soft enough not to if we are sleeping, and as the street exhales and sways, the darkness above comes closer, closer, and there appear a few incisive stars that have cut open the sky of smog and dust and smoke.
When a great loneliness has been attained, when there is no assurance, when the self is threadbare, ragged at the edges, when a life is so shaken out and empty that there is room in it for every object and being it watches, it is then that the ragged self sees through the muscular light, through the complex, melodic call of the unknown bird which never shows itself, and does not stop seeing, it finds a transparency in things that leads to their sources, whether that be a season or a man, the black clay horse with a benign sadness in its eyes leading to the hands of its maker, so nothing seems to have a definite end, and it moves towards each thing as easily as night towards day, so that the distinction between what is human and what is not falls away, and this is a knowing that cannot be lost as strength can or the ability to love, from this an unbreakable power unleashes itself that looks from the outside like complete powerlessness, and the evening wind from over the sea makes that threadbare self billow like a tattered sail, all that resisted it now become the air on which it rises, so that what has come to stay, can regard the clear spring night, regard the new stars, regard the different trees, as variations on a life span, each not to itself but to the other standing witness.
In Sanskrit, abhimaan is arrogance, pride. The word is definite and closed. Great classical languages have words for the grand emotions, the most complex philosophical insights. When this word comes into Bengali, it loses its rigidity, it gathers moisture, firm earth giving way to a sudden, still pond into which trees gaze, so numerous in the Bengal landscape. It changes in meaning to a sense of self which has been wounded, and which cannot have, or does not want to have, any direct expression of that wound. This can occur only between those who share the most vulnerable of relationships–lovers, parents and children, the nearest of friends. Bengalis are a loquacious people, but in abhimaan, there is silence. It is on the face, in a gesture, in the eyes, and if there are tears they are held at the edge and rarely overflow. In a woman the drape of the sari could almost hide it. We are an argumentative people, but in abhimaan there is no argument or fight. The pond is silent but aware, whether at noon, when the trees protect it from the harsh light, or at night, when some distant nightglow makes it luminous. The word combines the tender and the tough, in a way that the two sometimes lose their separateness. It belongs with other emotions like respect, or surrender, that are disappearing because the self now refuses to bend. Abhimaan assumes a childness, a kind of wound and love, or wounded love, of which only a vernacular is capable, a daily tenderness, a contiguous self, a searing need for the other. Tigers still wander in the mangrove forests of Bengal. There are words that give expression to the inclination of a culture. The long sound of abhimaan indicates a feeling that doesn’t simply come and go, but stays, for hours, days, months. This expression reveals something of the Bengali soul, its exaggerated sense of self come together with its genuine capacity for feeling.
In the afternoon, the day broke into two. The wooden shutters on the windows were closed to keep out the sun, the bedroom turned dark with that hot afternoon darkness, in which the mirror gleamed and sometimes the gold bangles on the women’s arms. This was the gap in the day, between its two parts of morning and evening. After lunch the women lay together on a large bed, a grandmother, a mother, an aunt perhaps, and the young girl, three generations together. Their saris were the soft, cool saris of afternoon, not the starched ones they would change into in the evening. They spread out their long hair behind them on the pillows and read a magazine or talked about the simplest things as the young girl, the grandchild, listened, not with particular attention. They talked about a story they had read or the rising price of fish. In those days, when electricity could not be relied upon, even in the large cities, the ceiling fan was often still in the searing and humid afternoons. Hand fans made from palm leaves were used to make a little breeze. The round, beige coloured fans had red and green fish shapes painted on them, sometimes stalks of paddy, or a few strokes of colour. The auspicious, the joyous, was added to something where embellishment was not necessary at all for its use. Once an arm tired the fan needed to be moved to the other hand. Someone fell asleep while moving the fan and it would drop from their hands making a rustling sound. Someone fell asleep with the fan resting on their chests till the heat woke them again. If anyone was sick or had a fever, the women would take turns fanning them. They never spoke of their sorrows, of their men, of the many changes in their own bodies. An aunt may have spoken of the best pieces of fish that she was never able to have because the men and the elders had to be served first.
A man lay his merchandise on a sheet placed on the pavement of a busy street. He was selling miniature palm-leaf fans, exact replicas of the larger ones. They had miniature paddy stalks and fish painted on them. ‘I’ve come all the way from my village, two hours away. My small son and I made these. It took a month,’ he says.
As the fans moved in the afternoon darkness the women slowly drifted in and out of sleep. Their longings and griefs, their sudden joys, did not appear in what they said, even to each other on those protected afternoons. These emerged in the way their eyelids fluttered as they said their prayers to the gods each morning and evening, the angle at which they bowed their heads, the way they felt the quality of a sari by rubbing it between their forefingers, what they cooked for the ones they loved more than the others, the way they all resumed a relationship with a mother or a brother after a fight, without ever referring to what had happened so that slowly it was all forgotten. Through each generation their lives changed and became more individual, more filled with different possibilities. In memories, the afternoons return to indicate that as possibilities open up there are others behind us that have already closed.
Sharmistha Mohanty is the author of three works of prose, Book One, New Life, and Five Movements in Praise, and The Gods Came Afterwards, a book of poems. She has also translated a selection of Tagore’s fiction, Broken Nest and Other Stories. Her work has been published in several journals across the world including Poetry, Granta, and World Literature Today. Extinctions appeared in August 2022.
Mohanty is the founder-editor of the online literature journal and the initiator of the Almost Island Dialogues, an annual international writers gathering held in New Delhi.