“Not enough funds?” Ajit Roy spoke into the phone while pacing the living room of his Kolkata residence. He sat down on the sofa, took off his black-framed glasses and threw them on the low wooden table in front of him. He stared at his laptop, the screen open to the university’s recent e-mail informing him that the new dean was cutting his only course, ‘The Economics of Family Businesses’, because of a shortage of funds.
“He refuses to understand the importance and purpose of the course!” Ajit said tracing a finger around the rim of his cup. He took a sip and frowned, the coffee was less than lukewarm.
Apart from a few grey strands on the crown of his head, Ajit didn’t look forty-two years old and could easily pass for one of his own graduate students. Dressed in a faded baseball t-shirt and white drawstring pajamas, his mind travelled to his Cleveland home on North Park Boulevard. Cleveland, a bustling city in America situated between New York City and Chicago, home to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Indians baseball team.
“I’m sorry Ajit but you have to understand there’s nothing you or I can do. The new dean doesn’t share our viewpoint,” said Mark, Ajit’s department supervisor, on the other end.
Ajit put down the phone and drank the coffee in one gulp, as if it were water. He didn’t want to wait another semester. He wanted to resume his previous schedule of classes, office hours and experiments. Leaning back on the sofa, he studied the uniform boxes of the calendar hanging upside-down on the wall behind him. Ajit closed his eyes and remembered the day he turned twenty-eight, the same day he and Bella graduated with their PhD’s from a reputed university in Kolkata. He had studied economics while she had studied biology. He dreamed of working as an economics professor in America and applied to various American universities. Bella didn’t share his passion for relocating to the other side of the world.
“A job is a job,” she said. “Why do you have this great urge to work in a place far, far away from everyone and everything we know?”
“There’s more to this world than Kolkata,” Ajit said.
“There’s more to Kolkata than you’ve seen,” Bella said. “Remember the old Bengali saying, ‘You can find tiger’s milk in Kolkata if you wanted too!’ This city’s famous writer and director Satyajit Ray named Kolkata ‘Mahanagar’, the enormous city. I don’t understand why you want to leave it!”
“I’ve never had the urge to find tiger’s milk! Besides, aren’t you curious to see what lies beyond our ‘Mahanagar’?” He asked.
Bella had a feeling that if one day he did receive an offer that he would fly off without her, so she applied to the same universities. They replied they weren’t in need of visiting professors that year, much to her relief. Ajit began teaching at the local college while she joined a pharmaceutical company.
At their parents’ insistence, Ajit and Bella married during Durga Puja, the five-day festival celebrating Goddess Durga’s victory over evil. Orange and yellow butterflies fluttered from one guest to another that October morning. Ajit and Bella’s mothers sat at a table far from the ceremony, upholding the age-old Bengali tradition that mothers were not to see the wedding so as not to bring bad luck to the couple. The butterflies, the women whispered between bites of almond-flavored sweetmeats, meant that Goddess Durga was happy with their children’s union.
Later that year Bella gave birth to a baby girl. Ajit’s mother named her Jyoti, referring to the soft halo of light radiating from behind Goddess Durga. She joked that if Ajit were to get lost his daughter would show him the way. The day after Jyoti’s fourth birthday, Ajit and Bella received letters of appointment at the same American university. The letters also stated that if funds were to continue the university would renew their contracts for another year. Unable to deter Ajit’s enthusiasm and decision, Bella reluctantly accepted her position.
The hardest part was leaving Jyoti. The night before their flight, Ajit and Bella tucked Jyoti into bed and watched her fall asleep. It was decided that Jyoti would spend equal amounts of time with both sets of grandparents as their families lived only a few miles apart.
“I wish these letters came before she was born. Imagine not seeing Jyoti for a whole year!” Bella said as tears rolled down her cheeks wetting the front of her blue sari. Bella gathered the tiny body in her arms, holding Jyoti close to her chest.
“Please don’t cry. It’s only for a year,” Ajit pleaded while stroking Jyoti’s hair.
The next afternoon, Ajit’s older brother Kamalesh drove them to the airport. “Jyoti has two sets of grandparents, an aunt, an uncle and four cousins. She’ll be fine so stop worrying!” He said as Jyoti bounced on Bella’s knees in the backseat.
At the airport, Ajit and Bella took turns kissing the dimples on Jyoti’s round face. When the time came for them to pass through security and customs, Jyoti flung herself flat on the floor and screamed for them to come back. Her arms and legs flailed in all directions as she attempted to swim across the floor to her Mama and Baba.
“Don’t you dare turn around Ajit,” Bella warned him as they stood in line behind the other passengers. “If we look back now, we won’t be able to get that image out of our heads. If we don’t look we can pretend she’s someone else’s child we hear crying!”
“But you’re her mother! How can you be heartless?” Ajit cried out. Ignoring Bella’s advice, he turned around and saw Jyoti pounding her fists on the floor.
In that instant, Ajit wanted to run back and hold Jyoti in his arms but a security officer ushered him to pass through the full-body scanner. He noticed for the first time that Bella stood behind the security line, her arms folded against her chest, her eyes red and her cheeks tear-stained. He no longer heard cries of Mama and Baba. Ajit looked back and saw Kamalesh cradling Jyoti, who with one hand gripped her uncle’s shoulder and with another waved a large chocolate bar in his direction. Ajit waved and smiled before passing through the scanner.
Most of the passengers on the flight were returning to their jobs in America, only a handful like him and Bella were flying to the new country for the first time. He thought the steamed hot towels served after takeoff and before landing refreshing. He relished the small trays of basmati rice, chopped spinach and fish curry. He found the cellophane-wrapped bowls of kiwi, cantaloupe and grapes exotic and was immensely surprised that the child-sized portions were fit for an adult. After lunch an old Hindi movie played on the wall-size screen. He soon realized the rectangular piece of glass affixed to the seat in front of him was actually his own private viewing screen. By pressing a series of buttons on the arm of his chair he could choose from a variety of movies and music in Hindi, Bengali, French and English.
The Boeing 747 picked up passengers in Delhi, stopped for a short layover in London and changed planes in New York where they cleared customs and deposited immigration forms. They boarded a smaller plane, arriving in Cleveland at midnight. A tall, thin man wearing blue jeans and a white polo shirt waited at the arrival terminal for them.
“Hello Ajit. Hello Bella. I’m Professor Mark Reyes, economics department supervisor and coordinator of the visiting professors’ program. Usually a group of us come to receive the new teachers but your plane landed so late that only I could come.”
“So nice to meet you Professor Reyes,” Ajit and Bella said together.
“Please call me Mark,” he said first shaking hands with Bella and then Ajit.
“I’m anxious to taste authentic Bengali cooking and hear all about Kolkata’s famous Victoria Memorial!” Mark said, as they piled the suitcases into the trunk of his car.
Mark drove down an almost empty six-lane highway illuminated with street lights while Ajit read a few of the city’s neon-lit signs: McDonald’s, The Chocolate Factory and The Marriott Hotel. Ajit talked about their family while Bella offered one-word answers to Mark’s questions.
“Are you feeling alright Bella? You’re very quiet,” Mark said while glancing at her in his rear view mirror.
“Please don’t mind Mark, but she misses our small daughter, Jyoti.” Ajit said. He turned around and saw Bella wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Oh, of course, of course,” Mark said. He nodded his head and drove the remaining way in silence. After an hour, he pulled into a rather wide driveway.
“We’re here,” Mark announced.
Getting out of the car, Ajit saw a cluster of brick buildings, each with a set of concrete steps leading to the entrance. Behind these buildings he saw a large winding tunnel covering a long flight of stairs. He would later learn that the students affectionately called these stairs the elephant steps because of the resemblance of the tunnel to the trunk of an elephant. Turning his head, Ajit noticed a large bed of yellow tulips decorating the front of a building named Alfred House. White fluorescent lamps nestled between the tulips illuminated the building against the night sky.
“These are the student dormitories. Only Alfred House is reserved for visiting professors. That building behind Alfred House is the Student Commons, inside is a cafeteria that opens at six every morning and closes at midnight, including Sundays. There’s also a fireplace in the commons for those chilly winter evenings.” Mark explained as an elevator took them to the third floor of Alfred House.
He led them through their new apartment which consisted of a living room, a kitchen with a small dining table, a bathroom and a bedroom. “I took vegetable soup and chicken sandwiches from the cafeteria and placed them on your kitchen counter,” Mark said. Ajit thanked him for his hospitality and closed the door.
Bella said she was still full from their in-flight meal and went to bed citing jet lag. But he knew that she was too upset to eat. He turned on the television in the living room and watched his first American show. It was about a busy widowed father who enlists the help of his brother-in-law and best friend to help him raise his three daughters. The show confirmed a feeling he had since he saw Jyoti in hysterics at the airport: Kamalesh and his wife Shreya would always make Jyoti feel loved just as the uncles made the three girls feel loved in their parents’ absence.
The next few weeks they attended new teacher orientation sessions and prepared their syllabi. In the last week of August they became busy teaching courses and holding office hours. Every Sunday they called home to speak with Jyoti and their families.
“She’s not sleeping too well. I think if Jyoti heard your voices before going to bed, she would sleep better.” Kamalesh said during one of their conversations.
“I think Bella would sleep better too. She keeps dreaming that she and Jyoti are walking in a toy store but then Jyoti suddenly disappears,” Ajit said. He found an Indian grocery store within walking distance from the university that sold international calling cards. The cards offered discounted rates compared to those of the local telephone company.
“Now that I hear her voice every night, Jyoti no longer disappears in my dreams!” Bella shouted from the bedroom as she changed out of her jeans and t-shirt into a yellow silk sari and matching blouse. It was Sunday evening and they had invited Mark and his wife Linda for dinner. Linda took second helpings of the chicken curry and vegetable biriyani while Mark relished the sweet tomato chutney. “I never knew tomatoes stewed with sugar, bay leaves, nigella and cloves could be this tasty! After dinner they sat on the sofa sipping coffee as Bella showed them pictures of Jyoti.
“You’re so far from home and your little girl. When our boys were younger, we put them in boarding school. We taught for long hours and no one was at home to prepare them meals or oversee their safety,” Linda said. With a sigh, she closed the album, handing it back to Bella.
“Sometimes being far from your children can’t be helped,” said Mark. “Those were difficult times for us, but it makes them independent. Our boys are older now, in fact they’re studying here at the university and we meet regularly for lunch and dinner. Things always work out at the end, you’ll see Bella,” Mark said finishing his coffee. “Oh, I have some good news for you Ajit! Our department received funding for a new research project and I would love for you to join. What do you say?”
“Thank you Mark! I really appreciate it!” Ajit said, shaking his hand. At the end of the year, the university also renewed their teaching contracts. He felt safe knowing that his dreams of teaching in America were now permanent. Bella was already working on a research project and now he could say the same. After the first year, they could afford to spend their summer and winter vacations in Kolkata.
“Both of you could come back,” Bella’s mother said one day while they were visiting. “Bella, I remember a time when you didn’t want to leave Kolkata,” she said as she finished braiding Jyoti’s hair, tying a pink ribbon at the end. Jyoti braided the purple mane on a plastic horse, a gift from her mother on her sixth birthday that year. They sat on the front veranda and sipped iced buttermilk while watching the neighbourhood children play cricket.
“Mama, I belong there. I enjoy the type of work I do and there’s so much to learn. Did I mention that Ajit and I are involved in our own research projects? We have bright careers there!” Bella said, squeezing her father’s hand.
“Yes, but at what cost?” Her mother asked, kissing Jyoti’s cheek. Jyoti tied another pink ribbon around the pony’s braid, kissing the creature’s face.
“My mother used to say that in order to obtain something, there must be a sacrifice of something else.” Bella’s father said looking at Jyoti, his face serious, his voice full of pride for his daughter and son-in-law. “Jyoti, did you know your parents are going to school too?” He said winking at Bella.
Jyoti’s jaw dropped as she looked at her mother with large eyes.
“Mama, you can take my new book bag.” Turning to her grandfather Jyoti said, “Dadu you need to buy another book bag for Baba.”
They laughed that lazy afternoon in July, but in the years to come Bella found her father’s words echo true, syllable for syllable. They missed the first time Jyoti rode her bicycle without training wheels. They didn’t see her lose her first tooth. They missed her school programs. They missed weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and Durga Puja. But the hardest part when death appeared on their doorstep because then they missed funerals. When Jyoti was ten, Bella’s father became sick.
“I don’t think I can hold him much longer Bella. You and Ajit hurry back soon.” Bella’s mother said on the phone one morning in December. But a snowstorm grounded all flights for three days. When they arrived in Kolkata, Bella found her mother attired in a white sari, and the parting in her hair washed of vermillion. She refused to speak to Bella while Jyoti continuously jumped on the bed.
“Stop jumping Jyoti!” Bella shouted.
“Why didn’t you come when Dadu was alive yesterday?” She screamed even after Bella told her about the safety hazards of flying a plane during a snowstorm. She also explained that time is lost when flying west to east.
“Why did you and Baba go to a place where days get lost and can’t be found?” Jyoti asked.
Bella had no answer. She laid her head on her mother’s lap and cried. Ajit stood in the doorway, leaning on the wooden frame for support and feeling guilty for chasing his dreams at a cost unable to be measured or refunded.
Groaning from the memory, Ajit lifted his head from the sofa, his eyes wandering back to his laptop. He never expected such an e-mail. Was he after all these years destined to spend his future in Kolkata? It never occurred to him that after working fourteen years the university wouldn’t renew his teaching contract.
Ajit and Bella were spending this summer vacation with Kamalesh and Shreya. Today was Jyoti’s eighteenth birthday. Laughing with linked arms, Bella and Shreya entered the living room. Jyoti and Kamalesh walked close behind them, a box of sweetmeats in his hand.
“Soan papdi!” Ajit exclaimed eyeing the light green box. “Ah, birthday sweets for our birthday girl!” He said closing his laptop.
“It’s a double celebration,” Bella said sitting down in an armchair.
“Jyoti has a surprise!” Kamalesh shouted, handing everyone a large square piece of the flaky confectionary. The sweet was made of gram flour, pistachios, cardamom and rose water and melted like cotton candy on Ajit’s tongue.
“Go ahead Jyoti,” Shreya said winking at her niece.
Jyoti stood in the middle of the living room. She held a thick, white envelope in her right hand.
“What’s in the envelope?” Ajit asked, noticing the familiar blue emblem.
“It’s an acceptance letter from your university! My classes start in August, the same time that you and Mama start work!” Jyoti said jumping up and down, her ponytail bobbing in rhythm with her feet. “Here,” she said holding the envelope in front of Ajit’s face. The university’s sunrise insignia stared back at him.
“And she got a full scholarship! Isn’t that fantastic Ajit?” Kamalesh said while placing another soan papdi in Ajit’s hand.
“Unbelievable work Jyoti!” Shreya said reaching for a second piece. “Sweets taste sweeter with good news, don’t you think Ajit?”
Ajit stared at the soan papdi, shifting it from one hand to another. Jyoti. At his university. The university where he no longer worked. The thought was ludicrous, but he felt the university was replacing him with his daughter.
“I’m so proud of her! Can you imagine how she took her own initiative? She’s just like you Ajit,” Bella said wiping the corners of her eyes.
“We didn’t know until she received her acceptance letter this afternoon,” said Kamalesh.
“Ajit, aren’t you happy for your daughter?” Shreya asked. “You haven’t said anything since Jyoti told you. And your soan papdi is crumbling on the sofa.”
“Huh? Oh, right. Jyoti, why didn’t you mention this before?” Ajit said fumbling with the pastry before placing it in the empty coffee cup.
“I-I wanted it to be a surprise,” Jyoti said looking at her mother, their smiles fading.
“I knew,” Bella said, patting Jyoti’s shoulder.
“You knew?” Kamalesh and Ajit asked together. Ajit narrowed his eyes at her.
“Only Mama knew. I didn’t want to tell anyone else and then be disappointed if they didn’t accept me. I had to be certain. And I didn’t want the university to accept me because you and Mama worked there.” Jyoti said, biting into a soan papdi.
“Bella, you never said anything to me,” Ajit said, his voice deep and somber. What else had they hidden from him? “Anything else you two have been hiding from me?”
“Baba!” Jyoti said, slumping down on the sofa next to her father. Her eyes filled with tears. “Don’t you want me to go?” She asked.
“Wh-why not?” Jyoti asked, her bottom lip quivering. Tears spilled over her long eyelashes and onto the half-eaten soan papdi in her hand.
“The education is very good right here in Kolkata. Why would you want to leave your family and friends for a place you don’t know?”
“For the adventure and the experience, the very reasons you went to teach in America! I’m no different. I’m your daughter too,” Jyoti said looking at Bella. “And, I want to spend time with you and Mama...”
“That’s true Ajit. You showed her the way.” Bella said, folding her arms against her chest.
“Kamalesh, Jyoti needs to speak with her parents. Let’s go outside.” Shreya said, pulling her husband towards the door.
“Is this your way of getting revenge because I didn’t take you with us to America?” Ajit asked, remembering the first time they left Jyoti crying and pounding on the airport floor. Bella was right, he never forgot that scene. Maybe Jyoti hadn’t forgotten either.
“Ajit! Don’t be cruel!” Bella said. “She wants to study at the university where we teach, how is that bad?”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“You don’t want me to be happy!”
“Jyoti! Don’t talk to me like that!” Ajit shouted.
“Ajit, what are you doing? This is a lifetime opportunity for her, just like it was for us,” Bella said. She took a deep breath and placed a hand on Ajit’s shoulder. “I too have an announcement. Starting next semester, I’m the new graduate biology professor at the university in New York. It’s a full-time position with opportunity for tenure.”
“What?” Ajit said turning to face Bella.
“I applied a few months ago. They e-mailed me their decision this morning. I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure I would get the job. Ajit, I’m tired of being a visiting professor at our university. I want job security. I don’t want to live my life on yearly contracts.” Bella said, folding her hands in her lap.
“Well, mother and daughter both have surprises.” He said clicking his tongue on the roof of his mouth. “I have one as well. Effective immediately, the university no longer needs me.”
“What?” Bella and Jyoti said together.
“Before we came, Mark came to my office and said the new dean might layoff a few visiting professors because of funding issues. I didn’t realize that it would happen to me! It’s wonderful that you got accepted Jyoti and Bella, it’s equally wonderful that you got an offer in New York, but now you see that we must stay in Kolkata.”
“Why Ajit? Why must we all stay in Kolkata?”
“Because I don’t have a job!”
“Ajit, Jyoti and I can’t throw away our futures because the university let you go. You should have told me as soon as Mark told you. Why haven’t you applied to other universities?”
“Because I like Cleveland, it’s our home.”
“Actually, this is our home. That is the place we call home because we can’t stay here,” Bella said.
Kamalesh came and sat down beside Ajit.
“And that makes it okay for both of you to move away from me and each other? If you two go your separate ways, then you’ll be breaking this family!”
“Ajit, you were the first to break the family. You convinced Bella to apply at the university with you. You decided to spend fourteen years in a foreign country away from your daughter, parents, in-laws, nieces, nephews and us. Ours and Bella’s parents died and you came after the formalities,” Kamalesh said.
“I couldn’t get tickets!”
“Whatever the reason, you were the first to physically break this family. Because of you my children are studying in Malaysia and London, both far from home. How do you think Shreya and I feel about that? Dreaming big can land you in faraway places, far from your family, places from where you may never return. We thought we were so lucky to marry our childhood companions and live near one another. Yet you wanted to see more, live more. You can’t blame Jyoti for doing exactly what you did,” Kamalesh said.
“Kamalesh is right. I never imagined having to raise my only child through instant messaging, video calling and social media! Chocolates, clothes, books, games and all the other things we’ve sent Jyoti over the years amounts to parenting on remote control. We spent no more than three months with Jyoti every year.”
“Baba, I want to live with you and Mama. I want to study in America,” Jyoti said burying her head in Bella’s lap.
“I can’t believe both of you made decisions about your lives and didn’t once think about telling me,” Ajit said.
“Come back with Jyoti and me. Follow us like I followed you to Cleveland so many years ago. Come back and apply as an economics professor at my university or any other university you want.” Bella said placing her hand on Ajit’s forearm.
“Leave me alone,” Ajit said pulling his arm away from Bella. He didn’t want to leave Cleveland. He didn’t want to leave the university. He didn’t want change.
Two weeks later Bella and Jyoti left for America. Ajit stayed in Kolkata, unable to accept their decisions and his new situation. For two days, he didn’t leave the house, coming downstairs after Kamalesh had left to open their father’s clothing business, Roy and Sons.
On the third day Ajit came downstairs to eat breakfast with Kamalesh.
“Do you want to come to the store today? I redesigned the interior just like the way you suggested a few years ago. And you’re right, the employees have a better knowledge of the merchandise now that we keep separate counters for Indian and Western wear and formal and informal wear. The manager also changes the mannequins’ outfits and accessories every day. Would you believe profits have increased by forty percent?” Kamalesh said wiping his mouth.
“You give good advice Ajit,” Shreya said, taking the car keys from the kitchen counter. “We’re having a teachers’ meeting after school today so I’ll be home late.
“Kamalesh, I just realized that even though I’ve been coming back to Kolkata every year, I’ve never visited the city. Our plane lands at the airport, we take a cab here or to Bella’s parents’ house and then leave for Cleveland a few weeks later,” Ajit said finishing his omelet.
“That’s because you were spending time with Jyoti and us. Of course, you’ll find things have changed. Have fun exploring your hometown,” Shreya said closing the door behind her.
After Kamalesh and Shreya left, Ajit walked down Mahatma Gandhi Road in search of his friends and favourite hangouts. Instead, he found a city with unfamiliar faces. New businesses had replaced many of the old stores that he used to frequent. Friends had married and moved to Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. For the first time in fourteen years, Ajit felt alone. No one asked for him, no one remembered him. He was a foreigner in his own city.
That evening Bella called to say she had reached New York safely. “The airport is much larger than Cleveland. And would you believe there are Indians working here in every nook and cranny? I’m not sure if I’m in India or America!”
“Is that so?” Ajit said feeling jealous.
“Oh I wish you were here, New York City is so exciting! And I saw the Statue of Liberty’s torch and crown light up last night. The light from the crown reminded me of Goddess Durga’s jyoti,” Bella said.
Two hours later, Jyoti called from Cleveland. She described her new roommates and her bedroom on the sixth floor in a building accessed by going up the elephant steps. She talked of her first American meal, a pasta dish layered with vegetables, various cheeses and thick tomato sauce. “Baba, it’s called lasagne,” she said. As she spoke, Ajit remembered the chicken sandwich, the vegetable soup, the television show about the widowed father and his three daughters and Mark’s sons studying at the university.
Ajit stared at the world map behind his yearly planner. Should he move to New York and stay with Bella? Should he look for work in Cleveland so that he could be near Jyoti? Or should he join Kamalesh at the family business and wait for Jyoti and Bella to feel his absence and move back to Kolkata? Did he still want to be an economics professor? What should he do? What did he want to do? The list of questions ran around and around in his head. He felt like a dog chasing its own tail.
After Kamalesh and Shreya left the next morning, Ajit walked through the house until he reached the last room on the second floor, Jyoti’s bedroom. Pushing the door open, he found walls crammed with overflowing bookcases and framed awards for academic excellence. Taking off his flip-flops, he sat down cross-legged on the bed. Ajit picked up a large, heavy album on the bedside table and placed it on his lap. The first picture was of Bella holding newborn Jyoti in her arms. He sat crouched on the hospital bed kissing Jyoti’s forehead.
In the next picture, Jyoti wore a pink silk and lace frock, one he remembered arguing about with Bella. She wanted to buy it at regular price. He wanted to wait for the year-end sale. He had relented and was glad that he did because Jyoti had received it in time for Durga Puja that year. Birthday pictures filled many of the album’s pages. Here was a picture of Jyoti holding a large golden trophy from when she won the national science Olympiad. Other pictures were of Jyoti with her grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. From the first time he and Bella visited to the times they weren’t present, eighteen years of memories were arranged in chronological order, six pictures to a page. The last was a picture of him and Bella standing next to the yellow tulips in front of Alfred House.
He felt his throat clamp shut the air suffocating and stale. Opening a window, he closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of jasmine and lilies from their garden. But a dreadful chopping sound cut into his thoughts. Outside he circled his house twice but found nothing. Walking down the street, he saw a man with his hands in his pockets standing next to a coconut tree, his back to Ajit.
“Ratan!” Ajit shouted.
“Ajit!” Ratan said turning around to embrace his friend.
“Why are you cutting down your beautiful coconut tree?” Ajit asked. “I still remember hiding behind it when we played hide-and-seek!”
“I remember those days fondly. But I think the tree is dying. The trunk has changed color and the coconuts have shrunk, they look like walnuts! And with monsoon season coming, I’m afraid it might break and topple during a strong thunderstorm. I don’t know what I would do if the tree fell on my house, or worse, on someone walking below!”
“The coconuts were robust and the water always sweet, the flesh pure as snow.” Ajit said, remembering how Ratan’s mother sent sacks of the year-round fruit to everyone in the neighbourhood.
Ratan had called two men to cut the tree. One man, who had already climbed the tree, had knotted a two-inch thick rope at two places around the trunk. He chopped the bark between the two knots, hacking into the flesh until the carving resembled two sharpened pencils attached at their tips. This man shouted to the second man, standing next to Ratan, to pull the rope, resulting in the top segment breaking off and swinging outwards. The now hanging segment bumped against the trunk of the tree. Handling the rope as if it were a pulley, the men guided the segment down to the ground. They repeated the procedure until the fifty-foot tree was cut into five ten-foot logs and laid side by side on Ratan’s lawn. The logs reminded Ajit of the hand-rolled cigars that Mark had gifted him for Christmas last year.
Ratan and Ajit walked to where the pieces lay.
“Look, the bark is cracked,” Ratan said.
Ajit touched the bark, the brown layer crumbling like soan papdi. Inside, the flesh was reddish-orange and home to a million red ants.
“Its life is gone, that’s why the tree was shrivelling and not giving any healthy coconuts.” Ratan said.
“How can this be?” Ajit asked. Could nothing stay the same?
“No one has time to take care of it my friend. We’re all too busy working. Who looks at nature anymore?”
“Dump ten pounds of salt on the stump to kill the roots and then cover it with concrete. No one will ever know a coconut tree was there!” One of the cutters said, shoving a wad of chewing tobacco into his mouth. They hauled the pieces onto a large truck and left.
After Ratan went inside, Ajit looked at the stump, its flesh the color of cooked salmon. At home he ate lunch and laid down for an afternoon nap when Kamalesh came home.
“Let me eat, then you can walk me back to the store,” Kamalesh said. Outside the sun bore down on the two brothers but Kamalesh guided them through tree-shaded lanes and underneath store awnings.
“Do you recognize our favourite hangout?” Kamalesh asked when they stood in front of an eatery at the end of the street.
“This is Munna’s Dabba? A few years ago it was a roadside stall!” Ajit said while reading the signboard. He looked at the brick building, unable to match his memory of the bamboo hut with what stood in front of him. The dirt floor was replaced with mosaic flooring. Dark wooden tables and cushioned steel-backed chairs had replaced splintered and tottering wooden benches. “Wow. I’m impressed, really impressed.”
“Space for samosas and coriander chutney?” Kamalesh said while patting his protruding belly with one hand. Ajit laughed, sitting down in a chair opposite of Kamalesh.
“Chota Munna, four samosas with your famous chutney!” Kamalesh shouted to the tall man sitting behind the counter. He wore jeans, a red t-shirt and a plaid dishcloth slung over his shoulder. The man smiled and nodded his head in Kamalesh’s direction.
“Munna’s father retired and that,” Kamalesh said pointing to the tall man “is his oldest son Ram. But we like to call him small Munna.”
“Everything has changed so much but I have to say that this samosa and chutney still taste like it did when we were teenagers.” Ajit said biting into the spicy triangle-shaped potato and green peas-filled pastry.
“Some things have changed, some things haven’t,” Kamalesh said dipping his samosa into the green sauce.
“Do you think I should join you at Roy and Sons?”
“And fight like the rest of the brothers in town over who gets their father’s property? I think we bypassed that street a long time ago. Besides, didn’t you once tell me that the first lesson of economics in a family business was for family members to not to treat it as a refuge when a career outside the business didn’t work out?” Kamalesh said.
“Otherwise the business could fail due to a lack of experience and knowledge. You remember,” Ajit said with a laugh.
“Of course, do you?” Kamalesh asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I always wanted to run Roy and Sons. I also know that you didn’t want to manage the business, otherwise you wouldn’t have left.”
Ajit shrugged his shoulders.
“Feeling lost?” Kamalesh asked.
“Yeah. And I don’t know my way back.” Ajit said, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin.
“I don’t mean Shreya and I don’t want you here. But what are you doing here without Bella and Jyoti?”
“I don’t know. I thought they would be here with me. I didn’t realize they had plans of their own.”
“So you need time and space to think about your next step?”
Chota Munna placed two bowls of lamb curry on their table.
“Chota Munna, we didn’t order these!” Ajit said.
“I know, please just taste it and tell me what you think,” said Chota Munna.
Kamalesh and Ajit smiled at their host. Ground lamb meat, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, onion and a myriad of spices devoured Ajit’s senses.
“This is divine!” Ajit said, swallowing another spoonful. Kamalesh nodded his head and continued eating.
Pulling a chair from an empty table, Chota Munna sat next to Ajit.
“You don’t remember?” Chota Munna asked Ajit.
Ajit stared at the young man.
“Five years ago you came here and told my father that if he wanted to increase his business that he should serve tea and coffee with these samosas. This way he wouldn’t lose customers to the tea shop down the street. You also suggested he add a lunch and dinner menu. My father said the next time you came to our restaurant to serve you our popular lamb curry, my grandmother’s recipe. My father says ‘thank you’ as do I.” Out of respect, Chota Munna pressed the palms of his hands together, bowed his head and smiled.
“I’m glad I could help,” Ajit said with a smile, reciprocating the gesture by pressing his own palms together.
They began walking again, taking a right onto Chittaranjan Avenue and stopping when they reached Roy and Sons. The store’s signboard, which lit up at night, was done in white lettering with a red background. Mannequins in the front window advertised the latest fashions while signs of brand names decorated the interior walls.
“Ajit, this is our base, the place where it all started after our Baba grew tired of his teaching job,” Kamalesh said opening the glass door. “When you’re feeling lost and wondering if your last decision was the best, this is the place to reconnect and recharge. I know you’ll find your next step soon,” Kamalesh said patting Ajit’s back.
Kamalesh greeted his employees and sat down in a wooden chair behind the counter. Ajit sat in the chair next to him. He looked at the glass shelves stacked with jeans, t-shirts, saris, dresses and suits. The back of the store was fitted with bolts of fabric in every shade and color of the rainbow. Ajit watched Kamalesh and his staff display item after item to their customers.
Ajit recalled his conversation with Bella that morning. She asked the same questions that he asked himself: What was he doing? Where did he want to be? Was he feeling okay? Didn’t he miss them? But he didn’t know. All he knew was that when Kamalesh and Shreya left in the morning, he wandered through the house searching for something. He spent time in Jyoti’s bedroom. He spent time in his parents’ bedroom looking at his mother’s saris and at his father’s infinite collection of vests, which he wore while tending the business. As comforting as the past was, he couldn’t stay in Kolkata to relive memories. He would need to make a decision soon.
Kamalesh greeted two customers, a young woman and her mother-in-law, inviting them to look at the latest cotton saris. But Ajit’s eyes wandered and his fingers played with the hem of his shirt just as they did when his father brought him to the store when he was fifteen. Unlike his father and brother, he couldn’t sit behind a counter and smile all day. That’s why he had escaped.
At the same time the interactions between his father and the customers intrigued him. How did his father know when to raise prices? How did his father know when to let the customer bargain for an item and when to tap the sign behind him that read ‘fixed price’, especially when another store down the street sold the same item for less? The questions bothered him and now he realized, led him to study economics. He enjoyed learning about the subject as much as he enjoyed teaching it. He had been searching for a way out of the business although he wasn’t too far from it either. Buying, selling and increasing profits were in his blood, he just didn’t want to be stuck in a store doing it. He wanted his independence.
Independence. Countries fought for it. Children begged their parents for it. Moving to a foreign country had given him independence. His path away from Roy and Sons had opened a new door for Jyoti. Bella was right: Jyoti was no different from him.
Ajit suddenly remembered Ratan’s coconut tree. Had he poured salt over the stump so that it would decay or was the tree growing again? He had to know.
“Kamalesh, I just remembered something. I’ll see you at home tonight,” Ajit said leaving the store. He ran down Chittaranjan Avenue and Mahatma Gandhi Road as fast as he could, stopping when he saw Ratan watering his herb garden.
“Ajit? Are you practicing for a marathon?” Ratan asked, noticing his friend’s heavy breathing.
“I...have...to...to know...” Ajit said between breaths.
“Have to know what?”
“Did you...put...put salt...on the stump?”
“Oh, I forgot all about it,” Ratan said scratching his head.
Ajit began running again.
“Ajit! Ajit!” Ratan shouted behind him.
Ajit ran behind Ratan’s house, stopping when he stood a few feet from where the coconut tree once stood. The stump was no longer visible. In its place was a rectangular patch of bright green grass from which a single yellow tulip rose.
Ajit shook his head and laughed out loud. What did he expect, a fifty-foot coconut tree?
And then the idea hit him: he had the experience, the knowledge, the education and the intuition to be a business advisor. Roy and Sons and Munna’s Dabba was proof that his ideas worked. His ideas had increased the profits of both businesses.
Ajit hurried back home and returned with his phone. He took a picture of the single yellow tulip and sent it with a message to Bella and Jyoti. He wrote, ‘This is where Ratan’s coconut tree used to be, beneath the grass is a stump with roots we can’t see but that never die. They are the foundation to new life and new opportunities. I’ll be home next week.’
To Jyoti’s message he added, ‘Perhaps this tulip could be the first entry in your next album?’
In the evening she replied: ‘Thanks for understanding Baba and have a safe trip back home.’