Ella’s Song

By Rohit Chakraborty

I

Mala had offended a real, live homosexual. A fledgling with a half-ripe voice whose name was Anamitro, who had said, “I see myself with a boy. Or a man. Yet, I’m scared that they might skin me. I can never be around them. It makes me queasy.”

Mala had only read about them in books she never fully understood and films that were screened discreetly in the dingy Concepts in Film Theory classroom at university. They were fantastic beings for her, like griffins or Frankenstein, invented by Wilde, Baldwin, Shakespeare, Forster. Like cannibals, they seemed such attractive “ideas” to her. Such anomalies; something to question the foolhardy heterosexual psyche with. She had never met a homosexual or a cannibal, blessed is her fortune for the latter. Cinema, free of the fortification of literacy, and its verisimilitude unfurling of its own accord, had convinced her more easily than literature that cannibals and homosexuals existed all the same. They also convinced her that only Caucasians were bona fide homosexuals and cannibals.

For she wondered why Sir Anthony Hopkins was allowed free rein on the telly, but Sir Daniel Day-Lewis, with his blond tips, never made love to his brown British-Pakistani boyfriend, Gordon Warnecke before a group of late night television enthusiasts. The network heads did not think quite like her, perhaps: it was the cannibals who were griffins and Frankenstein. No human eats humans. That’s just a silly little thrill, they must have thought. But, oh yes, boys snogging boys, girls feeling up girls, they had been caught offscreen. It’s propagandist, they must have thought. We shan’t air it. If our youth stumble upon My Beautiful Laundrette, we’ll have lads in saris and lasses on motorbikes, they must have thought.

Anamitro’s call had produced a feeble discord in Mala’s new bedroom, where she was a young bride, fresh as a red hibiscus in summer that the neighbours were so keen on plucking at dawn. Before the call, she had been recollecting a dissipated disdain towards her father, who had discreetly slipped in her photograph and vital statistics in the matrimonial columns of Anandabazar Patrika. Her disdain had burgeoned when requests came pouring in. On a bleak August day, Mala found her husband in the mail—tall, lanky, with sunken cheeks and brilliant eyes. His smile revealed an overbite. He had a head of wispy hair that he would probably lose to the years. He was a branch manager at a national bank and, as she found out on their second night as a wedded couple, well-endowed. Upon seeing his photograph, she had “loosened up”, a phrase her mother-in-law liked to repeat to social callers who came to see the new doll in the case.

Any calls in the middle of the afternoon meant someone from Birla Sun Life Insurance trying to “walk you through” policies. Naturally, Mala panicked. She had a response prepared. If it was a woman, she would be charming like her husband. Male callers were to endure the expletive ridden tirade, mimicking her mother-in-law, who was often annoyed at these ne’er-do-wells intruding upon her mid-noon slumber.

“Hello, yes. My name’s Anamitro Deb.”

So unnerved. So rickety. He must be a rookie salesman.

“Do you want someone in particular?”

“No, you’ll do just fine.”

All her youth, Mala was forbidden lipsticks, kohl, and perfumes in cut-glass bottles. Mother had never approved. Body lotions in December and coconut oil in cans that had a hole drilled into them with the needle of a safety pin were the only imperative luxuries. She dearly held on to glossy texts like Chapman did with Salinger, studying ladies wrapped in glittering fabric, exposing their concave midriffs and their collarbones, their painted faces conjuring beauty at its least acquirable that Mala sought to emulate.

When the promise of wedded bliss came a-knocking, Mala was a clay idol to whom women in the family flocked, with paintbrushes, and palettes that came with mirrors. She reeked of Hypnotic Poison her uncle had couriered from Finsbury Park. And then came the saris, so intricate in their embroidery, so papery in their make, that despite many years in training, she had to call for her mother to swaddle her in them.

“I don’t have many friends. I don’t have any friends.”

“How old are you, Anamitro?”

“Fifteen.”

New Mother had the telly to herself. Bland soap operas blared from this box round the clock, dulling Mala’s senses. In his confession, Mala detected an opportunity to thrill herself. This young buck, poor lost buck, with no policies to sell, might take her away from the drudgery of wifely duties that comprised cooking three meals and sitting by New Mother, chastising neighbours and their children.

“Why do you have no friends? Not even one?”

“I’m abnormal, aren’t I? At least, that’s what is said about me.”

As an adolescent, Mala found grown-ups crying abnormal. Wailing, and flailing their arms, beating their chests when a fight broke out in the family or a grand-someone passed away: and she witnessed this abnormality aplenty, for hers was a family of hot-headed ancients. She became a victim of this disorder, however, in the privacy of her new bedroom when the world was dead at three in the morning; she had sobbed profusely after her husband had made love to her for a good minute.

He had propped her on his lap, and wiped her face when she claimed that until then only her mother and father had seen her naked last, right before her pubes sprouted. She had read and joked with mates at school and university about fucking. But this breach in her orifice reminded her of the smacks that landed on her back and across her cheeks during tutorials at home. Mother was ruthless. No sooner did she turn ten than mother and father, teachers and tutors maintained the distance of a wooden ruler that had been, until that day, an instrument of correction.

And that kind husband had caressed her breast with one hand and rubbed her back with another. He asked her what was the most interesting text she had read at university. She summarised Oedipus Rex. They did not make love for another month.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“I’m sorry that you don’t have anyone to talk to about this but a complete stranger.”

“Well, thanks…I guess…for listening.”

“Do you think, then, that those—your classmates who are unlike you—are normal?”

“There’s all of them. There’s one of me. Fire rages in their underpants—all of them. Boys who gab about boobs. And girls who yap on about that V thing men who live on treadmills have. And then there’s me. I don’t speak. I don’t want them to find out.”

“So you feel for boys like girls, am I right?”

A pregnant silence rent the wires. A heavy sigh was heaved on the other side.

“I don’t have any immediate plans of putting on a pair of stockings and slipping into a skirt and chasing dicks. I thought you’d be trained enough to deal with me—”

“Wh—?”

“But you must be a rookie. Aren’t you? This hotline you’re running is shit. You’re all shits. I’m never calling again.”

And then the call died, its noise akin to a heart monitor flatline.

Mala conceived ideas for novels she would never write in the middle of the night. Obviously, close to dawn, she decided to ring back the boy the following day (the imperative luxury of a landline that displayed received numbers was at her disposal) and not only apologise for her brazen illiteracy and want of empathy but also pick his brains, question his every thought and fantasy, dread and agony.

She wondered why she would take such pains to ring back the boy. She vividly recalled sprinting down the corridors of her University, in hot pursuit of professors as they slithered in and out of their little burrows, demanding a reason for that low mark or grade. “Shallow understanding of the text,” one had said. “A unidimensional and boring perspective,” spoke another. “Let your mind somersault sometimes,” one of the helpful lot had advised.

 

II

Are you barking mad?” The dead had risen from the grave. “I’m not telling you about my ‘childhood possessions’. Why have you called me back?”

Anamitro was positively unnerved—trembling in his dark bedroom. He was careful not to let it be betrayed in his voice.

“Who is it?” Mother called from the living room.

“A friend. Asking how my Pujas went.”

Mrs Deb was giddy with this declaration; her son seldom received friendly calls.  It was either classmates demanding notes that Anamitro would dictate over the phone, sometimes for hours on end, or heartless ruffians prank-calling from birthday parties and sleepovers he was never invited to.

“Which Mala?” he hissed into the receiver.

Oh, he knew who she was. He had seen mediocre actors playing her in soap operas that Mother and Father devoured together. He knew that she was a bored housewife, with no real skills, who aspired to housing society glory: conducting Residents’ Welfare Association Elections, perhaps even running for President, going out to dinners with the acceptable crowd and making her clique known through social media, the Chief Gossip-Monger, the Prime Fire-Starter. She was the woman who sent her toddlers to gyrate to Bollywood pop during Pujas. She breathed down their necks during Sit-and-Draw contests in the lawn for she was no mother of someone who had only mastered stick figures.

“You’re going to throw my story around at the dinner table, aren’t you? And then your friends and family will click their tongues and go back to their meat and fish and eggs.”

She apologised vehemently. Over and over again. She called herself a “fettered fool”. She was quite melodramatic, a few subtleties shy of poetry. It was endearing but Anamitro held his ground.

“I’m not unusual, I think. I’m just another variety.”

She wanted to know more.

“I must tell you that the concept of a hotline is not swapping sweets. I don’t owe you my story,” he added with disdain, “so that you may educate yourself.”

“Anamitro, I am not a wall for you to play catch with yourself. I’m on the other side of a glass window, hoping you’ll wave back.”

This is going to be a long call, he thought.

“Poetic,” he said, without meaning to.

“Hardly,” Mala added with a snort.

And so he began, first with the toys. His father had bought him action figurines and dolls. Since Barbie was much taller than the armoured Batman, he would often have the superheroes in sticky situations. The Barbies, with their ugly stilettos and their pretty knee-length dresses came to save the day; dark knights-in-distress became a trope during playtime. Soon, he had the entire Justice League sitting puny beside his legion of blonde and brunette dolls.

His father marvelled at his prodigious sketches of the house where the dolls would spend their stationary days. Every room was a duplication of their own. He also marvelled at sketches of the round table, and chairs, the computers with dots for buttons and keys, and the technical equipment as large as monuments that could only mean that his son had also planned a headquarters for the League. He believed his son might make a capable architect someday.

His mother had laughed and coughed incessantly when she walked in on her son twirling a headless Barbie around; the acephalous lady had her head mounted on her hand and Anamitro was humming the opening theme of a horror show that was rerun round the clock. She believed her son might make a sadistic stand-up someday. That particular doll ended up in the rubbish, of course. And when he saw it in its headless ruin at the base of the bin, he muttered, “Another one bites the dust”, a lyric he had picked up  from the radio and was eager to mutter in the style of an antagonist.

He devoured illustrated Ladybird classics his father returned with from business trips to Delhi or Bengaluru. The fate of Andersen’s mermaid never made sense to him as a child. But now, the fog was slightly clear. It would perhaps take him another decade. He would return to the glossy text and clarity would settle like a shroud.

By 10, he had made up his mind between DC and Marvel, concluding that the Avengers were a cocktail of motley clowns when compared with members of the Justice League. In the weekend afternoons, when his parents were taking two-hour naps and the house was silent but for the snoring, the stationery would come out; he would be Catwoman on Saturday and Batman on Sunday. He was very proud of the masks he had painstakingly made with his mother, who helped him with the scissor-work. He also confessed to Mala that he was heartbroken for a week when he had lost the shoebox where the masks and other paraphernalia were placed. He suspected that the maid had something to do with it.

“When did you really know?” she inquired.

“For ever.”

There was a time when his mother dolled up every day. Now, she doesn’t even brush her hair on Diwali. Her heavy lids often look naked without the kohl. Her fingernails and toenails were always scarlet once. In fifteen years, she had not worn a sari; they hang in her wardrobe like skeletons in glass cases of Biology laboratories. He can’t help but blame himself: she jiggles her paunch every time his grandmother or his aunt mentions how fetching she had looked as a collegiate and on her wedding day. “I don’t want to show off my fat tummy,” she always revolted. “And my scars. Who’d see those? Sight for sore eyes? Hardly.” Truth was Anamitro’s mother was sickly thin when she was married—a delicate twig. He blew her up—like a raisin in water. It was his fault. His alone.

There was a time when he was five or six, when he would sit before his mother’s mirror at his grandmother’s. He would pull out the drawer that poured into the air a stench of ancient newspaper mingled with little cirrus clouds of talcum powder. His mother’s mother still stocked the drawers with an array of nail varnishes in the faint hope that one day her daughter would reminisce as she sat at the dresser, paint her nails like she once did as a youngling, and be a glorious maiden again.

Anamitro would pull out a vial of scarlet, a colour which mother always wore, or so his grandmother claimed. He would deeply inhale upon unscrewing it and be lulled into an otherland of glamour and grandeur, where people’s sweat smelled of roses and breath of rosemary. His grandmother had taught him how to apply the strokes deftly and keep the brush from smearing his skin around the nail. His grandmother had taught him how to turn a page or hold a cup while the varnish was still wet. Father was amused, of course, and Mother was glad that her mother had found another doll to play with.

“It was in school a million years ago. We were being led away from our morning prayers. I was trudging along behind a boy whose palms had been filigreed with henna. He was pulled out by the class teacher and given a good talking to. He told her, with snot and tears flying everywhere, that there had been a wedding that weekend and the women—his sister’s friends—had applied mehendi when he demanded that he wanted his hands to be like the bride’s. That same day, I had been called out in the classroom. ‘Would you like your guyliner and your round glasses, Mr Osbourne?’ she had remarked at my black nails.”

Thence followed the teacher’s grim ultimatum that forced grandmother to fetch nail polish remover from the grocers’ round the corner and grow up.

“Did people in school suspect?”

“You make me sound like I carry guns into my classes.”

No one, in fact, had suspected anything out of the ordinary. He was quiet, shy, but a brilliant student. He had hardly any friends, but was highly sought after before tests. A bidding war began for the seat beside his: the booty included canteen coupons, being the Lock in the Lock and Key games for an entire week, or free access to one’s art supplies for forty minutes in SUPW classes.

Uniforms negated any chances of sartorial flamboyance. Once his voice dropped at twelve, he gave clipped replies, spoke gravely, careful with every syllable lest he be asked to put on a cocktail dress. He never experimented with hairstyles. It was always sleek, with a side parting. He took immense care not to drag his speech, not to move his arms about. He never placed his hand on his hip. He always crossed them behind his back. He never laughed in public. He always chuckled. Or choked. He could not risk attracting ridicule with his falsetto bursts. He was always in a straitjacket.

And then he spoke of Shayak: gangly, sharp cheekbones, hair which fooled one into thinking that a porcupine had made his head its resting place. Anamitro had always gravitated towards the Wolverines—with their hairy pecs, their beards, and their thighs as thick as tree trunks. Bears fucking were what he wanked off to all his adolescence. But Shayak was a prodigy in the football field, an idiot in the classroom. He was a simian with his spaghetti limbs, furry face, and bulging eyes. But he was kind.

He had leapt off his seat and landed beside Anamitro while the teacher explained beginners’ trigonometry on the board.

They began whispering about music. Obviously, he listened to the odd rapper, the nasal pop star, and the incoherent rocker who looked like a Gothic nightmare.

“What do you like?”

Without lifting his eyes from the notebook where he copied diagrams and formulae, Anamitro said, and quite spontaneously so, “A hot fuck.”

Shayak’s snort made the half-bald teacher turn, scan the class, and return to the green wall before him. “Wow,” he remarked once pens had resumed scribbling and caresses under desks had begun exchanging. “I didn’t know you were so uncouth,” he added with a smile. “Uncouth—I like that word. No, I mean’t musically, what do you like?”

Anamitro listed Ella and Louis and Billie. “I know a Billie Joe Armstrong,” said Shayak, shrugging his shoulders.

“Yeah, the only thing I like about him is his eyeliner.”

Anamitro told Mala how his stomach began churning when he smiled until he realised right in time that he was flatulent.

“So what happened with Shayak?” Mala asked.

“He got himself a fat girlfriend.”

“Are you two still friends?”

“I don’t have any.”

A brief minute passed until Anamitro’s voice cut through the heavy silence like a hot poker. He spoke of visions he had had of his withering self, as blanched but as substantial as Polaroids. Alone, shrivelled, and grim, he waddled around his house, banging against a cupboard or a sideboard. He began his morning with some prayers, then to the bathroom it was where he washed every muffin top, every wrinkle. Then he ironed his clothes, wore them, and set out for groceries he would pay for with his pension.

He would be in good health, for he suspected that he would never latch onto cigarettes or alcohol or potatoes by the sack. But, in the mid-morning, he would come to an empty home with not enough hands to hold the bags and turn the doorknob. Would he get a dog, he always wondered. But cleaning its shit seemed too colossal a chore.

He would inherit his parents’ bed, of course, and revel in it, because of it majestic padded headboard. He would sleep on one side by the window long after they were ashes in the Ganges. Like them, he would shut the curtains and the casements to carollers, crackers, and dhaks. And on one of these shut-in evenings, he would pass away before the telly. Neighbours would break in after a week. They would take his jewellery box and Moleskine journals. As soon as they read about his fantasies, they would turn in their stolen bequests for they were cursed memorabilia.

On brighter days, he never looked beyond forty. On brighter days, his skin was taut and caramel. His hair was sleeker still and respectably attended. On brighter days, he was an ambassador who travelled the world with his Swiss-Caribbean partner whom he never marries because Father croaks the last croak and Mother is racist. His lover has jet black ringlets on his head, green eyes, and a gap between his front two teeth. He teaches Poe in Edinburgh and was a visiting professor at Jadavpur where they had locked eyes.

At his little flat in Scotland, his lover has a wardrobe where you could stretch your legs. They share jumpers, shirts, shoes, ties, and cuff links. He reads to Anamitro Poe at bedtime. And Anamitro, oddly, sleeps soundly once he has finished. “Berenice” is a frequent request. He, Anamitro, would remark at the gap as his lover narrates and say, “It’s like a little chink between ivory double doors, as if they’re opening up to stories and songs.”

“Or closing in on them,” he would say.

“Don’t depress me,” Anamitro would reply.

They would bathe together often. In the bath, they would sit before each other and exchange boyhood reveries. However, there is not a photograph of his lover’s infant self. He, the Swiss-Carribean professor, had lived in a tiny flat in Geneva. It was above a café where his mother baked muffins and kept an eye on the slot machine. His father had succumbed to a drug overdose. Anamitro spoke of how the professor would bounce him as he hung from his neck like a monkey when they made love and cradle him in a sweaty embrace thereafter that would make him yearn for a bite of barfi, and a casual Bengali curse or two; soon he would be sobbing for his mother.

They would return to Calcutta for Christmas Eve where they would spend the witching hour at St Paul’s Cathedral. On their way out, they would be stopped by a policeman who had been informed by neighbours of the little “arrangement” they had had and they would take the professor in for questioning and leave Anamitro behind. He would not be heard from again. The telly would never broadcast his story. Anamitro would slip, once again, into nightmares of old age. Withering alone.

Mala was shedding tears on the other side.

“Through all this,” Anamitro spoke, “I hope I don’t lose my hair. It runs in our family, you see.”

 

III

February brought with it rheumatism for New Mother, who was away at the gynaecologist’s with her son. Mala unravelled before the telly, tuning into Vh1 to verify that the language of the lyrics would not be lost upon her. Months had elapsed since she had read or spoken in it. Months still since she had got off the phone that night with the boy and had woken up the very next morning to find that every number and every name on the landline had been deleted by an overnight death and sudden resurrection of the phone connection. She had, for ever more, lost touch with the boy.

Ella came alive on the screen, pristine in white, crooning something ominous like priests of Bengali autumn.

Send the call out.

Mala threw her head back. She shut her eyes and as the a cappella reiterations of that singular line began, she found a South Kolkata lane materialising around her from wisps of smoke. She then saw a procession of images: a watch being strapped on with the dial turned to the inner wrist, a yellow translucent button being pushed through a hole, a strand being replaced behind the ear, and petroleum jelly being applied to cracked, full lips.

Send the call out.

She heard the creak of metal gates as it swings in the dead of the day, alarming you like an unexpected phone call. The latch was set in place. And then the bass sounded; and then the gravel crackled. A teenage boy began walking away from the gates, down the lane. He was sharp: thick eyebrows, sleek combed hair with a side parting that exposed his pale scalp, and speckles of hair upon his upper lip. He had on a camel jumper over a white shirt and indigo trousers that rippled around his long legs. Passers-by, in their drab daily greys and blacks and blues, in their suede nothings and poly-blend staples, eyed him with disdain, through their unkempt hair that fell like the curtain on a band of actors who had gone rogue on stage. Mala, it seemed, walked by him. But he did not seem to acknowledge her.

“Anamitro?” she mouthed.

Acne vulgaris had left his hollow cheeks mangled. The natural light went out and orange street lamps burst into life. They passed a mother-daughter duo; the little girl dropped her doll when she locked eyes with the boy. It was one of those dolls that came to Mala in brown boxes from aunts and uncles who never existed beyond letters and phone calls; these dolls shut their eyes once you laid them to rest.

The boy studied the purple pinafore of the doll as it lay fast asleep in the gravel. And then he walked on. A bicyclist who glided past him was thrown off his vehicle. The boy halted, wondering if he should turn, walk up to the cyclist and tend to his scraped elbow. But he did not have his cape on and, it was appropriate to say, was off-duty. He turned the silver ring on his right middle finger that was set with a black stone and moved forward.

He stopped under a lamp. Then turned. There was nobody behind him in the darkness. He walked on. Until he stopped once more. In the dark. And saw a toddler in a hastily buttoned green shirt, holding the doll with the dirty purple pinafore under the orange glare of the lamp.

“Why isn’t your top proper?” he inquired of the toddler. “Why are your laces undone?”

“I dressed myself. Mother isn’t home. I can’t button buttons. I can’t lace laces.”

He smiled and approached a sweetshop.

And everyone’s competing for a love they won’t receive, someone hummed, as he walked around empty plastic tables and chairs and approached a stick, sickly individual in knitwear. Covering his head was a knitted beanie. He placed his hand upon his head and let the beanie slip. Crimson tresses shone in the cheap illumination of the moody tube lights. Mala wondered where this ginger had come from. And why did they call someone like him ginger when he was clearly a carrot. The boy stooped to place a kiss on the carrot’s mouth.

The kettle fumed and so did the waiter who carried the tea glasses.

“We had better leave,” said the carrot, dipping his ringed finger, that was set with a black stone, into the ketchup and scooping stray cubes of potato from the samosa he had had. “She calls now.”

“Let’s.”

Down another murky lane they went, arm-in-arm, the toddler in tow. They walked round a street corner and stood on the steps of a gated front door. Mala recalled the street she had frequented as a student: this was the house that she had dreaded every Friday, for in this house she was made aware of her inadequacy, of her undesirability, of her unwontedness in a crowd of prospective scholars, writers, and go-getters.

The gates swung open and so did the double doors. Mala followed them inside as they floated into a dimly lit parlour with diamond monochrome tiles and golden lamps on the walls. She felt her breath catch in her chest. The wife appeared before them. Oh, how she quietly admonished Mala in her youth for her bottle-brush hair, her bushy eyebrows, her hairy arms, and her flat chest. To her Mala was a beaten-up rag doll, unwomanly. Oh yes, she thought Mala harboured no desires for men.

“You have to put these on before you meet him.” She held up two pairs of handcuffs that were linked to each other.

“Ironic,” exclaimed the carrot lover.

Ahead, Mala saw that wooden door she had come to despise. On it, however, had appeared a nameplate over the years. It carried the name of her professor and underneath it read “Deputy Faggot Hunter, by order of Hon. Chief Minister, South 24 Parganas”.

“Your wills have been prepared this afternoon,” said the Wife. “Give each other a final kiss. Make it short. Don’t shed any tears. It’ll make your wounds burn hotter.”

The boys crossed their hands behind their backs as the toddler and Mala looked on. No sooner had their hands been cuffed and their lips had met than the door opened. There, stood a mole-like man holding a whip in his hand.

“Ironic,” said the carrot lover again.

They entered and disappeared behind the doors.

Mala heard a crack.

She woke up boiling in her cardigan. The baby had kicked for the first time.

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