Story: Deep Down Under
By: Debadrita Chakraborty
A face, alive and prominent amidst silhouetted men and women, greyed skyscrapers and a dilapidated blurry image of George Street. Eyes elegantly defined in kohl, a touch of vermillion on the parting of her head, a pair of Indian eyes, lost, displaced in a foreign country/land, her bright earthy-red coloured sari, a misfit amidst the greyness. At the far end of the picture, blurred words read – Leela, a human anomaly.
Memory took over, conjuring the image of the Leela, I knew at school. A Canadian immigrant, I recalled, alone and friendless. She was obese, obesity synonymous with depression, with isolation and non –acceptance.
Leela dissolved in the background as I drew connection with the tangible world, a world consisting of what my aunt termed as ‘My People.’ People who like her had a love for Ghazals and Rabindra Sangeet, whose nostrils like hers instantly reacted to fish curry and rice and who like her vehemently condemned the Right wing politics while hailing Communism. People, who together accomplished a mini Bengal. A Bengal that remained unnoticed in the broad daylight, in the busy streets of Sydney. Like Leela, visible to mini Bengal, invisible to the silhouettes surrounding her.
Saturday night was imbued with the whiff of barbeque chicken like every Saturday when mini Bengal met up, unfolding their long preserved past. A past stored and secured in the niche of their memory, a past that emerging on particular occasions, a past tinged with the present. Like a cacophonic duet between Bryan Adams and Rabindra Sangeet.
Feeling pent up, I took refuge in the seclusion of the garden, surrounded by maples and muriahs, marvelling at the vague eucalyptuses that dotted the darkened horizon. Eucalyptuses reminded me of home, of India.
Lost in thoughts, I did not notice the new member of my cloistral reclusion.
“Aren’t you enjoying the party, the barbeque and drinks?” he broke into my musings.
“I don’t drink,” I replied somewhat carelessly. “I have a creative writing assignment to be submitted in the next week and was thinking about it,” I said, wanting to be left alone.
“I can help.”
I looked up at him, his face half visible, a mishmash of light and shade. He looked older than he really was, ravished by time, his forehead brutally crisscrossed by the lines of fate taking liberty in scripting his destiny.
He had a storyteller’s eyes, dark and secretive, waiting to be explored.
I smiled. An approval. He began. His story waiting to be approved.
It all began in the wee hours of that fateful Sunday, a drunken Rohan driven home by his friends.
“Rowdy Australian friends” as his father would have later said.
To him they were friends, plain and simple …just friends! Not Australian, not Chinese, not German, not Sri Lankan, not black, not white. Their friendship synonymous with smoking together away from prying eyes, sharing dating tips, last minute assignments, the lingering stench of empty coffee mugs, little joys and raucous celebrations.
Unable to contain himself, the effect of alcohol driving him to giddying levels, Rohan threw up, spurting vomit all over the flower beds, like an erratic gardener sloppily watering his plants, staining his shirt as he walked past a fuming Ajay and an agonized Neela into the Roy residence, wobbling as he went.
Drinking had become a problem with the 18 year old Rohan ascending with the growing number of friends and partying every weekend. It was decided then that the Roys should leave, leave for good, leaving their present to secure their son’s future.
I looked up at my storyteller wondering whether he was narrating snippets from his own life. I waited for the final twist in his story. Oblivious to my musings my storyteller continued.
Things settled within a week’s time. Being a professor of Business Management in one of the leading universities in Sydney it was with little effort that Ajay Roy secured a job in India’s prestigious Indian Institute of Management situated in the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. An anxious Neela, gave up her career, resigning her managerial position, determined to rehabilitate her only son from his wayward dwindling ways. For Rohan, there was nothing to hold on to. No jobs, no school, nothing. He had hoped to traverse the domain of college life, a life that he had always lived in movies – full of possibilities waiting to be explored, a life that promised him freedom and friends.
A life that could have begun.
It was all settled, then that they were to fly the following weekend, a week that fateful Sunday that had only begun to script the destiny of Rohan’s life. Yes, a new life would begin, a life away from the suburb he lived in, away from his not black not white not Australian rowdy friends, away from that flowerbed he spewed vomit, away from life itself.
And in the days to come all these would have been forgotten, vague and amorphous and fleeting like life itself.
My storyteller paused, waiting. Like a passenger waiting to be transplanted to some unknown unseen destination, that destiny had already scripted for him, that he had only to follow. A wingless migratory bird transported on a winged migratory machine, a machine designed by man to transport and transplant, to uproot and displace.
“Well that was all about Rohan and his departure.” I broke into his silence. “What about his parents, I mean I need to know a bit more about them. I would like to involve their experience as immigrants in my narrative as well.” I added half hoping him to fulfil my wishes.
He smiled a reflective smile, his secrets, a storyteller’s secrets ready to unfold itself.
Flight to India was a joyride for Ajay. Twenty one years of his life spent in Sydney, a life of a pupil and a preceptor, a land that had found him a job, blessed him with marriage and a son. And in return it had only wanted to be loved and received. He did not regret leaving past the prime years of his life, he felt no remorse. No hatred, no love, nothing.
He vividly remembered the hot summer day of 1982, his arrival in Sydney, penniless, rootless, blessed with only a meagre scholarship just enough to eke out a bare living. He recounted those endless nights of bartending. It brought him good money, good enough to save for the future. They were savings mired with heaps of abuses and caustic sarcasms. Dark facts that lurked around, unsaid, carefully wrapped and closed in his mind. And all this he did for his untraced amorphous future. Ajay always thought of the future. His future and now Rohan’s future.
The family reached Ahmedabad in the early hours of a Tuesday morning.
“Twenty one years,” Rohan heard his father say, “It’s been twenty one years I left this city and there wasn’t a day I never missed it. It was always there deep down in memory, my country, my homeland, my India, it all belongs to me and I to it.”
Ajay went on, oblivious to his son’s displacement, who stood there grappling between two worlds, at the threshold of a new life, a new life that had begun twenty one years ago on a hot summer day, a new life that was about to begin for a rootless, penniless Rohan, with no bartending jobs to do and hence no money to save. Bartending is considered too degrading, too menial among people of his parent’s class.
A week had passed since their arrival. Life resumed in Ahmedabad for Ajay, for Neela, happily settled in the new version of their past, all excepting the rootless, penniless 18 year old , Ajay-like, Rohan with no college, no friends no freedom.
Time never ticked for him.
The boy had had only a physical transplantation, his being still rooted in the high school classrooms, in his books, in every nook and cranny of his room, his memory indelible, trapped in the ringing laughter of his friends, in a face that appeared in spasms, off and on, a face that he vividly remembered belonging to Laura. His voice trailed away, permeating with stillness of the night, blending with the strong whiff of barbeque.
“What about our little protagonist,” I had propounded a new name for Rohan, “I mean, what about his experience in India. I presume he had never been to India before, how did he feel?”
Life in India proved difficult for young Rohan. His first day in college was a disaster. With his long manes, half covering his eyes, his hands tattooed, his pierced brow shone beneath his unkempt hair, Rohan looked a perfect anomaly among his college mates. He knew he could not befriend them, that he was different.
His mother would often console him “Time will solve everything, you just need to wait. Maybe try and be like them.” But that “waiting” that “being them” never took place.
He realized then that all that Neela had told him was just a hypothesis, quite contrary to the proven theory. The theory being an Indian born in Australia was an Australian, an Indian born in India was an Indian. Everything depended on one’s birth land, and it culminated into being one’s homeland.
Having propounded a Revolutionary theory, he dropped college, the dreams of college days wrapped up carefully, deep within the niche of his mind. And it emerged once in a while. Once he was with Ruksar.
He first met Ruksar near the Lake of Vastrapur, a small girl, her hair wild and unkempt like his, her clothes tattered, in rags, unlike him. She sold incense sticks in traffic signals. An anomaly which Rohan had never witnessed in his country.
There were many things he had never witnessed, the streets littered with domestic wastes, alleys reeking of urine, building walls covered with layers of grime, spit and “cast your vote here” posters. “Votes that fetched a leader and with it a distant dream of a land that he promised refugees, prior vote”. said Ruksar.
Girls dressed in oddly mismatched saris, there petticoat visible from beneath, the scent of muriah flowers strong in their hair, who loitered in anonymous lanes and by lanes of the city. “They are prostitutes” Ruksar had told him once.
It was through Ruksar that he remained connected to his present world. She roused him to reality, discussing politics, a pro Hindu government versus a secular central government, a Right party condemning Leftist politics, political maneuverings and propagandas and how that would help her get her promised land. Her little mind spurting out all that she had grasped in mass political meetings.
What her little mind could not gather was that refugees like her were mere political baits, vote banks during elections, what Ruksar never understood was promises made were never fulfilled.
Ruksar could never conceive such fine perceptions and Rohan never bothered. Until the fateful day.
Ruksar often related her refugee story, how her family had crossed the borders of Bangladesh, how they hoped to get work in India and how she had eventually lost her parents, transplanted from the borders of Bengal to the heart of Gujarat and how eventually by the graced of god she had sought refuge with a Hindu family. They were her provisional family until the time she reunited with her family, until the Promise was fulfilled. Until then.
The day arrived, windless and calm, forecasting an impending disaster. For Rohan, the day held a usual meaning of vacuity and sloth, the only beam of joy being his little friend Ruksar. It was due to Ruksar that he had begun loving his new world.
It was true, Rohan had grown to love a murkier part of Ahmedabad, the dirt, the dust, the squalid streets, the stenching potholes. He felt close to the earth now, sans Ajay, sans Neela, sans politics, sans migrants, sans being Australian or Indian.
He knew nothing when he waited there in the banks of Lake Vastrapur, marvelling at the evening sky changing from blood red to bluish red. Nothing until he saw a stricken Ruksar coming his way.
“We should hide somewhere they might get us,” dragging him as she went.
“Who are ‘they?”
“An angry mob killing refugees, they don’t want us here, they have killed my friends, they are after me now.”
Rohan equally mortified waited for the terror to end.
He heard voices, ravenous predators waiting to prey, a hungry pack of wolves. Unlike Ruksar he perceived that the mass murders weren’t restricted to refugees, the matter was more grave – a pro Hindu government, a political, propaganda.
He could see the city burning, only Lake Vastrapur, alone and isolated, their secret hide-out remained unscathed.
Ruksar sobbed, “I wish we never had boundaries, no barriers, only one world and everyone together, migrants and non migrants and all,” her voice choked with tears.
The communal holocaust subsided in the early hours of the morning. Rohan walked a puffy eyed, mortified Ruksar to her home, walking past blood bathed bodies, maimed hands and feet strewn around. Like flowers strewn on streets when votes fetched a new leader and the false promises of hope and home that came with him.
It took them a while to find Ruksar’s home walking amidst gazing eyes and riotous whispers, “A Hindu with a Muslim,” swearing under their breath. Rohan did not care, Ruksar’s union with his family made him happy, Ruksar’s happiness made him happy. That was all he wanted for his little friend. He was about to leave Ruksar to her happiness when the next scene horrified him. An unconscious Ruksar carried away by two burly men.
Rohan stared at Ruksar’s provisional father “How could you do this? She was like your child wasn’t she?”
“She is a Muslim, you see, we can’t keep her now in a Hindu neighbourhood. Besides they will pay her well. Give her food and shelter.”
“And you sold her,” his voice quivered with rage and desperation. “She prayed for your wellbeing through the night and you…,” his voice trailed away, tears flowed feverishly down his eyes.
“I did it only for the good of my family. A migrant like you born and bred in a different country wouldn’t understand Indian politics. She was a refugee, she had to go.”
Rohan turned away. There was nothing he could do now. The decision had been made. That transgressors should be punished. A price they paid for traversing formidable territories.
“I wish we never had boundaries, no barriers, only one world…” a tear choked voice that vaguely hovered around his mind.
He wobbled down the road, blurry eyed. The streets stank of decay, bodies that changed colour from blood red to bluish red, like the evening sky in Lake Vastrapur. Bodies that littered the streets of Ahmedabad, homeless, displaced like him, like Ruksar. For the first time in several days, Rohan was reminded of that fateful Sunday, a Sunday that had scripted his displacement, his inevitable end in the streets of Ahmedabad.
With Ruksar gone, the streets, the alleys, Lake Vastrapur, no longer remained familiar to him. Life stagnated, time stopped ticking. Rohan felt misplaced, among his own people. Memory reminded him, he was never an Indian, he could never be an Indian, he was an Australian, born and bred in Australia, a migrant to India. He felt nauseated, pent up, trapped between politics and religion, migrants and refugees. He realised for the first time, the significance of his being a Hindu in a pro Hindu government, his religion had saved him while Ruksar’s thwarted her.
And that night, father and son quarrelled.
“You knew we aren’t supposed to talk to Muslims. Can’t you have proper Hindu friends? Fooling around with street urchins and beggars?” the word had spread that Rohan had given refuge to a Muslim girl during riots. Ajay fumed. He hated Muslims it reminded him of the bloody tales of partition that his grandmother related from memory.
Rohan could not hold it any longer. The flood gates of anger, of frustration, and loss had given way.
“I do not believe in being a Hindu or a Muslim. I worship humanity, I wanted to save Ruksar but I couldn’t. These barriers, boundaries, religion are devised and manipulated by people like you. I was happy there in Australia. You got me here. You wanted me to imbibe Indian culture and I ended up here, displaced, lost among strangers, grappling to assimilate the Indian lifestyle. And it all culminated in bloodbaths, communal hatred and in all this it was me who lost, lost identity, lost a friend.”
And that night, he dreamt.
Lake Vastrapur, a blood red sky and a girl in tattered rags, the faint fragrance of incense sticks in her. She stood at one side of the bank, her hands stretched, beckoning Rohan, calling out his name.
A deafening noise woke him up. The darkened night blazed with flames. War cries and communal slogans permeated the streets of the city.
The image of the incense stick seller came back to his mind, her hands stretched, her face distressed. He felt helpless, vengeance churned within, a ravenous predator waiting to prey, like a pack of wolves.
It was decided, his destiny had been scripted.
Rohan was last seen amidst wild flames and human apocalypse, lost in the communal furore.
Ruksar’s face appeared in spasms, off and on.
My storyteller stopped, his voice trailing into the night.
It was past midnight, the sky, blood red. I walked back to the house.
“You shouldn’t have been out into the night. It’s quite cold here.” my aunt scolded.
I was talking to someone.
“Who? Was it Rohan?”
A mixed tang of burnt charcoal and leftover chicken entered my nostrils. I looked up at the blood red sky changing a bluish red.
I felt for him deeply.
I knew I had to write.
Debadrita Chakraborty postgraduated from Macquarie University with a distinction in Twentieth Century Literature. She has written research papers on various aspects of literature from challenging Literary Theories to making contribution to past researches on Postcolonial Literature, Gender Studies and Trauma Discourse.
Her interest also lies in the field of creative writing and she has won competitions as a writer in college. Currently she is pursuing research on gender studies.