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The Foreigner— Mamta Kalia

Dec 23, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Hindi by Rituparna Mukherjee 

 

We were a strange family indeed.

Three brothers and a sister, settled in three different countries, who missed each other’s company dearly. When we pined for each other a lot, we made long phone calls, sent one another affectionate cards, and promised to meet each other the very next year and for a few days, thereafter our hearts seemed to lie in wait for that.

All of us used to stay together earlier. The large house at Lakhpat Kot would seem small trying to contain all of us. We had our marriages there and got our jobs there, our elder brother was appointed a teacher at the Kendriya Vidyalaya, the central school, our sister got a job at the Training College while Nirad was employed as a lecturer at the Kapurthala College.

Bhai would thoroughly read the newspaper while Amarjeet wouldn’t even glance at it. Nirad would skim through the headlines in the college staff room. His interest lay in literature. 

One of those days, our elder brother saw a way to emigrate to Canada . There were a dozen vacancies for school teachers there. When Bhai-Bhabhi sent for the forms, there was quite an uproar in the household. 

Bauji and Beeji exclaimed in the same breath, “If you two brothers leave this home together, how will we survive without any support?”

Bhai replied, “Amarjeet’s here, Pankaj is here as well as your entire community.”

“We won’t be able to reach the heavens without all our sons lending a hand to our corpses,” Beeji started weeping. 

Bhai reassured, “Once we settle down a bit, we will call the two of you there. In fact, I’m certain we will be able to arrange jobs for Amarjeet and Pankaj there as well.”

When Nirad returned from Kapurthala in the evening, Beeji accosted him, “You are a sly creature, aren’t you? You have made all the plans to leave us and go to another country by yourself.”

Nirad was stunned. When he learned everything, he fumed and said, “You cannot make my decisions for me. I’m not leaving this place whether it is Canada or Timbuctoo.”

Bhai explained, “Look, you will get paid forty times more than what you receive here. The poverty of our house will disappear as if it never was there.”

“Why don’t you take care of your own penury? I don’t want anyone to submit my form.”

“Don’t be silly. The form can be submitted only after you fill it out and sign it.”

Nirad got up, “Where is the form? Let me tear it.”

Amarjeet came in the middle and snatched the form away. Pankaj was present that day as well.

“If you don’t want to leave, give us the form instead, let us get a taste of life away from this hellhole.”

Nirad became confrontational, “What are you calling a hellhole? This house or your in-laws’ place or your work-places? It’s the very limit! You have a little difficulty and this place now seems like hell to you?”

“What does this place have? You toil the entire day, you have only a little money in your hands. If I don’t do four tuitions, it becomes difficult to manage household expenses, and then there’s the fear of thievery every other day.”

“Go child, why don’t you go to the country of the fair-skinned as well?” Bauji said.

The four left one by one this way and we couldn’t stay in Punjab for long either. Nirad got a job at Allahabad University and very soon we became Allahabadis

Meanwhile, the children grew up. Bhai’s three daughters and Amro’s Chinu-Minu stayed with us as photographs on the shelf. We kept receiving their news, that Sandy played the piano well, that Nita had completed her graduation in social work and that Sadhna’s marriage had been fixed with some rich local man. In our minds and memories, they were still children, who had wept while leaving this place and said, “We don’t want to go away so far, we will return soon.”

This time Bhabhi said on the phone, “Bhavna, our good friend Richard is going to India. He will be touring Rajasthan for a week after which he will visit Allahabad for a week. Please see to his comfort. Get the house cleaned. There shouldn’t be dirt, mosquito, or lizards anywhere. Richard is a doctor. Your Bhai would have brought him along with him but he isn’t getting a leave now. We believe in you, that you will take as good care of him as you take care of us when we are visiting.”

After this phone call, I spun around like a top with all the work that required my attention, with one eye on the house, and one on the family. Both were flawed. The house itself was no less than a museum. 

Beeji’s bed was laid in the dining room, and the plaster in the drawing room was peeling off, inside, the children had turned their room into a computer room while clothes were strewn all over their study. The dressing table was kept on the stairs and the kitchen was so congested that I would be frustrated in searching for things in the small space. The small flat was such that it wouldn’t inspire living within its walls if not for love or compulsion.

I told my children, “Look, your Taiji’s guest is coming here three days later. You better clean your room, he will be staying in the room next to you, what would he think of your disorganized room?”

The children were nonchalant. When I reminded them a second time, Mannu picked all the books, CDs, and towels from his room and dumped them in ours. 

I took all the clutter from the house and put them in the attic, cleaned the tops of the almirahs, pruned the plants, roaming around the house maddened with the work. 

Nirad told me, “Why are you troubling yourself? Let the house be just the way it is, if he finds it difficult to stay here, he will shift to a hotel himself.”

I didn’t find this logic acceptable. I didn’t want him to think that educated women in India could not manage their households well. Bhabhi would also be displeased.

In three days and with a lot of hard work, I changed the study to a guest room and transferred all the treasured items of our flat to that room. 

The bed had a four-inch foam mattress, the walls were decorated with prints of Picasso and Vinci’s paintings, new Turkish towels, foreign bathroom slippers, and a new jug and I had even put a separate fridge in the space outside his room. 

Looking at all these preparations, Anu said, “Wow Mummy! This room looks absolutely exotic. All it needs now is a lady to stay in it.”

I told her, “Anu please put your music system in this room. It’s just for a week.”

Surprisingly, the two children put their music system in the guest room without much fuss. It was dearer to them than life. I put cassettes of Bach , Beethoven , and Mozart on the table. The children told me, “Let us put a little pop in the mix as well, otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to digest it.”

When Richard Parker arrived in our household with Nirad, his six feet tall frame seemed to fill the room. He met everyone amiably and enthusiastically and folded his hands when he met Beeji and said, “Namaste!”

I had prepared cheese sandwiches for him beforehand. I quickly made tea. My long-employed maid Malati didn’t want to serve our guest tea with just one food item. He had traveled such a long distance after all. She quickly made some potato and onion pakoras and fried some papadums as well. Richard was stunned at all this arrangement. He quickly picked up a pakora and put it in his mouth. 

The pakora was piping hot. Richard jumped up from his chair, took the pakora out of his mouth, looked at the children, and smiled, “Sorry,” he said and tried to cool it and put it back in his mouth. 

“Delicious,” he said and finished three-fourths of the plate. He liked the tea as well. It was difficult to say if it was our hard work that had made things so pleasant or his mood. 

We took him for a walk by the river in the evening. He had a habit of taking evening walks. He was really interested to know the history of every object in sight. 

“Who constructed this ghat? When was it built?”

“Which Gods do these idols represent?”

“Don’t you get confused with so many Gods?”

“Since when has this boatman been doing this job? What is his age?”

We obviously could not answer all his questions, and when we returned home, it dawned on us how little we actually knew about our surroundings.

Beeji said, “Nirad, do ask Richard not to go outside in his knickers and vest, he should be properly clothed when he steps outside the house.”

But Richard felt very hot in Allahabad. He was after all a resident of Alberta in Canada where the temperature was mostly below the freezing point. 

Although we were well-conversant in English, conversations with Richard would often be a little difficult because of his accent and mannerisms. But I soon realized that unlike me, Beeji and the children didn’t face any problems in communication. They would sit and watch the television together for hours. Bhabhi had sent a videotape of the interiors of her home and office. He would illustrate what occurred there by playing the tape on a V.C.R. and where he would fall short of words, he would bridge the gap through actions. Everyone would laugh. He related Bhai’s life to Beeji without any language. I tried being the interpreter between the two for some time after which Beeji sent me away.

“I can understand him,” she said.

I kept praying the first night lest a mouse or lizard found its way into the room upstairs. I had already made arrangements to prevent mosquitoes. 

The dinner time passed by pleasantly. We served simple vegetarian food which he liked. He didn’t drink the water although it was boiled, he requested Malati for tea instead. 

He had learned two-three Hindi words in Canada. He knew the pronunciation and meanings of, “Alright, yes, and no.”

We had expected that like every other foreigner, he would want to visit Khajuraho and therefore had previously made a reservation in a tourist bus. But when he heard, he nodded his head and declared, “No, I plan to go to Sarnath .”

“We can go to Sarnath any day by car,” Nirad said, “Why don’t you first see the place for which you have come to India?”

He replied that he wanted to see the tree of knowledge, the Bodhi tree, and wanted to buy some things for the Buddhist form of meditation that his sister had asked for.

It was difficult for us to take leave from our jobs. He said, “I will go by myself. Could you please just put me in the appropriate vehicle?”

We urged like good hosts, “What’s the hurry? You have just come. Why don’t you stay here for a few more days?”

He showed us his diary where his one-month stay was meticulously planned. 

I asked him, “Wouldn’t you feel scared going to an unknown place all alone?”

“Did I scare you? No, right? Then how can I fear the people here? Human beings are the same everywhere.”

“But you don’t know our language. How will you convey your needs to other people?”

“I can manage.”

“Look here,” said Nirad, “This country has an equal share of wicked people and good people. What will you do if you happen to chance on a particularly evil person?”

Richard laughed and said, “Your brother had told me that in India, no one is your enemy aside from the water.”

We canceled the reservation in Khajuraho. He spent the next two days mostly at home. He went and saw the Anand Bhavan in the afternoon. We sat together and talked at dinner. 

Once the ice was broken, Anu and Mannu were in their element. Mannu dropped a glass of water on the floor while trying to pour water into his glass. It made me anxious.

“How many times have I told you two to eat at the smaller table!” I circled the house in search of a mop in vain. 

“You are fond of listening to music, aren’t you? But is it proper for children to sit amidst adults and listen to their conversation?” I would have spoken more. It is my outlet after the entire day’s frustrating housework and care. I often get carried away while I scold my children and, in my anger, I start counting all the mistakes ever made. Mannu became heartbroken and left the food untouched. Richard implored, “Mannu, I am your friend. Please eat a little for my sake.”

“I don’t feel hungry,” he said.

Soon, Anu followed suit and left her food aside as well, “I don’t want to eat as well.”

Beeji said, “Come here, you two. I will feed you with my own hands. Do you want to listen to the story of the devotional cat?”

When they were younger, both of them would eat from their grandmother’s hands, listening to stories. They had grown older but sometimes, during mealtimes, one caught a glimpse of their younger selves.

Both of them sulked.

Beeji said, “The one who comes to me first will get one rupee.”

Both of them jumped quickly to their grandmother’s seat and Malati served their food on a fresh plate and gave it to Beeji. Beeji involved the two of them in a lively conversation in such a manner that they finished their dinner in no time.

I was still upset that we could not dwell in a civilized manner for two days in this house. If you wanted to drill some sense into the children, the elders interrupted you, perhaps that is why Richard was leaving so soon. 

After finishing his dinner, Richard told us while sipping his tea, “I will never forget your hospitality. I have felt at home in your family.”

“You will also not be able to forget the chaos here,” I said.

“The thing that you call chaos is something people in my country miss desperately, but where do we get the warmth of familial living? Take me for instance, I have been alone since I was twelve. My parents were divorced and initially, I stayed with my mother for two years. After her second marriage, I started staying with my father. After a year when my father re-married, there was barely space in their lives for me.”

“You are now quite old,” I remarked.

“But how can I explain how lonely I have been? In Alberta, all of us are lonely, like islands unto ourselves, your Bhai says. Nirad was correct in not going abroad.”

Somewhat proud of himself, Nirad said, “Richard, I have always believed that one doesn’t leave one’s soil merely for means to earn better. My job is academic in nature. Whatever little fame and respect or slander I earn, let it be here. If I cross the seven seas and move to a strange land, who will listen to my voice? My language will lose its fragrance.”

“Right,” Richard said, “Your Bhai perceives this. Three generations in your household still sit for dinner together. This is a rare happiness. I have had the opportunity to experience this after such a long time that parents of children become obedient children themselves in their own parents’ eyes. Three generations living together under the same roof, sitting affectionately in the same room, without much friction. It is a big deal that your children have a normal childhood! Don’t ever diminish its value!”

Richard left for Banaras in the morning but taught me a life lesson. The carefree foreigner wasn’t merely a tourist then!


Notes: 

Bauji: Father

Beeji: Mother

Allahabadis: citizens of Allahabad


Also, read four Bengali poems by Subrata Sarkar, translated into English by Arnab Roy, and published in The Antonym

In The Land Of The Giantess & Other Poems— Subrata Sarkar


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Mamta Kalia (born 2 November 1940) is an Indian author, teacher, and poet, writing primarily in the Hindi language. She won the Vyas Samman, one of India’s richest literary awards, in 2017 for her novel Dukkham Sukkham (Sadness and Happiness).

Rituparna Mukherjee is a faculty of English and Communication Studies at Jogamaya Devi College, Kolkata. She did her MA in English literature and currently pursuing a Doctoral degree in Gendered Mobilities in west African and Afro-Diasporic Literature at IIIT Bhubaneswar. Her areas of interest include African and Indian literature and Post-colonial and Feminist theories as well as English Language Teaching, Second Language Acquisition, and Communication studies. She works as an ELT consultant, translator, and ESL author outside of her work and research schedule.

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