Photograph by Philip Daly
by Pia Ghosh Roy
The courier man rings the bell again, then leaves the large brown box with a neighbour; a reasonable man, but reluctant as neighbours often are with parcels meant for a different door. The delivery is for Abhi Dutta who is lane-changing on the M6, driving badly, as doctors do.
The Duttas had left Birmingham early, hoping to be in Edinburgh by lunchtime. Abhi’s wife Buran is seated next to him, a map open on her knees, trying to take her mind off the baby’s nappy which should’ve been changed an hour ago. In the back seat, next to the sleeping baby, is Abhi’s cousin Shubho with his wife Reemi. They had flown in from Delhi a week ago for a three-week holiday.
The car’s beige leather sinks low with unfamiliar weight. The air vents suck in the outside making Reemi’s nose itch. She hadn’t heard of hayfever till a few days ago. Secretly, she’s quite impressed to have borrowed what looks like a foreign ailment to complain about back home. In India, an allergy to pollen would be seen as a posh problem afflicting delicate foreigners or the affluent Anglophile. And this ‘posh’ had none of the negative connotations suffered by its English cousin. In India, posh, even a posh problem, was aspirational.
“This is it, isn’t it, Abhi? This is the life! All of us together, driving through Shakespeare’s country,” says Shubho, although he’s quietly disappointed. Their drive has shown them hours of paved motorways instead of pretty cobblestoned village roads wrapped around handsome Tudor houses. Where’s the English England for heaven’s sake?
“Yes, finally. We planned this, what, in college?” says Abhi.
“On those tram rides from Esplanade to Ballygunge,” Shubho nods. “We were pros at planning.”
“Plans didn’t cost money,” laughs Abhi.
Abhi and Shubho – cousins, and almost the same age – had grown up together in their large family-home in Calcutta. They’d gone to the same university, shared the same set of friends, and always had each other’s backs.
“Here’s to big old plans,” says Shubho, lifting his bottle of spring water, taking a swig. “And to family,” smiles Abhi.
“It’s good to finally have some family in this country,” agrees Buran. “Even if it’s only for a month.”
“Next time, you’ll have to come to us,” says Reemi. “We’ll get a promise out of you before we leave!”
“No talks of leaving yet, please!” says Abhi, holding up his hand. “Time enough for that.” “Who knows, we might even refuse to go. Beware,” grins Shubho.
“Now, there’s a plan!” smiles Abhi.
The navigator lady speaks. They take the third right at the roundabout. Shubho rolls down his window, then realises the day looks warmer than it is. He rolls it back up.
“Let’s move to England, babu.” Reemi curves closer to Shubho. She itches off a spot of dried-up breakfast from his shirt. “You can find a job. I’ll grow strawberries and drink tea. With scones. Scons, scones?”
Shubho laughs. Buran and Abhi laugh. No one mentions the Tories’ new, impossible immi- gration laws. A summer’s proposal, like strappy stilettos, has no place for practicalities.
“Look at those sheep in the meadow, babu. That thatched cottage!” Reemi points to Shubho as the motorway finally swerves them past a speck of a village. “Don’t you sometimes feel like you’re living in an Enid Blyton book, Buran?”
“I suppose so. That canned England we Indians grow up on,” replies Buran, offering the cynicism that comes with her new British citizenship. “That too from that racist little madam.”
“Racist? Who Blyton?” Reemi is an uncomplicated woman with earnest shoulders and ques- tions that answer themselves. “Really? But all she ever wrote about were pixies and gnomes and flying chairs.”
Buran smiles with one end of her lips, snaps the map back into precise folds. “No point spoiling that pretty little picture now, then.” Reemi, the ingenue, is starting to get on her nerves a little. Her wide-eyed inspection of the world makes Buran look old and jaded.
Abhi checks his watch. It makes the other three check their watches, like a yawn passed on. Another two hours, they calculate. Buran turns on the radio. The baby stirs, whimpers, but doesn’t wake. Blondie sings “Atomic”.
“This little boy is lucky to be growing up here. All this fresh air,” says Reemi, stroking the baby’s cheek. “Such a healthy, handsome bachha he is.”
Buran smiles, softens. Would Reemi and Shubho like some dried apricots, she asks, passing them a packet.
“How life changes in a generation, huh, Abhi?” Shubho looks at the soldiers of conifers that line the road. “Us, growing up in that mad house in North Calcutta. The last of the joint-family- generation. And here’s your son. British-born. Quiet semi-detached life. Queen’s English, and all that.”
“No chance of the Queen’s English where we are,” laughs Buran.
“He’ll probably get that bloody Brummie accent,” grimaces Abhi. “Like a bad tune you can’t get out of your head.”
“Who cares about a little accent? You’ve got free education and free healthcare, dammit.” The benefits Abhi takes for granted astounds Shubho. He finds his tourist visa far easier to digest – NO WORK OR RECOURSE TO PUBLIC FUNDS. This seems more reasonable: denials; a tight- fisted authority. He has never had things easy.
“Do you know how much parents spend on their kids in India these days?” adds Reemi. “First, ‘donations’ to get into the right school. Then the obscene fees. Then violin lessons, swimming lessons, tennis coaching. Oh, tuitions after school – science and maths. And birthday parties that look like weddings.”
“I know,” says Buran, shaking her head. “A school friend posted photos of her daughter’s birthday party on Facebook. Magicians, fireeaters. A three-tier cake. I think I counted five food stalls – Continental, Chinese, Indian, Mexican and something-something.”
“Why do you think we keep putting off having a baby?” says Shubho. “The costs! If you have a child growing up in India today, you can forget about what you want. A holiday like this? Impossible.”
“Ah, the single minded, live-for-yourself philosophy of the West. When did you borrow that?” Abhi asks into the rear-view mirror. “Don’t we have the lives we wanted because our parents made a few compromises?”
“We ‘have the lives we wanted’? Really?’ laughs Shubho. “Now, that sounds too plebeian for Mr Abhi Dutta!” The radio shifts channel without permission, hisses, then settles on David Bowie. “I mean, is it even possible to have the life we wanted? Too pat, no? Human nature isn’t that easy to please.” Abhi takes a hand off the steering and jabs the volume up on the navigator. At the roundabout, take the second exit. Take the second exit. Shubho speaks louder. “We’re programmed to want a certain life, and then change our mind once we get it. We start questioning it. Or wanting more. Less. Anything. So we can always be a bit pissed-off with the present. You know…keep walking, as the good Johnny Walker says.”
“There, finally! A classroom lecture by Professor Subhashish Sen! Thank you, Sir. That was some fantastic existential shit I’m sure. But do speak for yourself. What’s with the ‘we’?” Abhi says. Reemi shifts in her seat. Buran suggests stopping at a Services. Abhi keeps driving – “Most of my boxes are ticked, Shubho. Sorry if you’re still walking.”
The inside of the car shrinks. The baby wakes up, whimpers. “At least not walking on crutches.”
Reemi cuts in desperately, asks Buran if she should give the baby his bottle. Buran says no; just the dummy for now.
“What’s that supposed to mean, crutches?”
“Now enough of this silly topic!” says Buran. “Reemi, let’s plan our evening. Edinburgh’s beautiful at night. What do you guys want to do for dinner?”
“Nothing never means nothing. Enlighten us, please. What crutches am I walking on?”
“Forget it I said.”
“Why? Lost your nerve?”
Reemi puts a hand on her husband’s knee. The baby pushes the bottle away and starts crying. Buran turns down the heater. “Enough you two,” she says.
“Na, haven’t lost my nerve. Never had much nerve in the first place, don’t you know? Definitely didn’t have the nerve to clear out my parents’ savings for a foreign degree,” says Shubho with a dry laugh, head turned at the blur outside his window.
“Ah, that’s my crutch!” Abhi’s nod is exaggerated in its understanding. His angry heel presses down on the accelerator. A speed camera flashes. “Hate to shatter your convenient reading of my life, but Ma and Bapi did exactly as they wanted. They wanted me to get out of that house, that city; the damn mediocrity.”
“So you got out. Well done,” says Shubho. “So much for disapproving that live-for-yourself philosophy of the West.”
The baby spits the dummy out. His cry is sharp red, it engulfs the car. Shh, shh, says Reemi.
Buran passes her a teether and a silent sorry.
“Oh, grow up, Shubho! For you, life’s all black-and-white, good-and-evil. Like the Macbeth you’ve been teaching every year for eight years.”
The car is like an airtight jar with moldy leftover, breathing, multiplying, pushing. Reemi tries to rock the baby’s car seat to stop the crying. The smell of nappy and milk makes her want to throw up. She elbows her husband. Please stop.
“Both of you need to grow up,” says Buran, looking at her husband. She has been listening to them push each other with a mix of unease and exultation. She’d always heard stories of their closeness: brothers more than cousins. During their holidays in Calcutta – which she wills herself to endure every year – she had been an onlooker to their easy brotherhood, smiling dutifully at the stories they repeated and relived over and over. Envious of Abhi’s knowledge of the young Shubho she would never know.
But today she is witnessing something new. A tearing. A reassessing. In the beigeness of their four-by-four, both men see each other from unknown angles. They speak through mirrors that distort distance and make things look closer than they are.
Taken out of the familiar setting of their old Calcutta house, their relationship falters. Here, they are just two grown men with very different lives, uncushioned by constant reminders of their childhood. This is England where only one is at home. An ugly advantage.
“Abhi, will you just get us to a Services now? You need a break, we need a break” Buran tries a different voice, the cajoling-wife voice. “The baby needs a nappy.”
“Stop saying the baby, the baby. He has a name.”
Buran resists response; she will not be provoked in front of others. Abhi edges out the car to overtake a horse-trailer. Services 3 miles. Edinburgh 22 miles. The distance between them and the waiting parcel stretches longer and thinner in the dim afternoon grey.
About the Author:
Pia Ghosh Roy is a writer and artist. ‘Driving North’ has been longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and shortlisted for The Brighton Prize. It has been published in a print anthology called Rattle Tales 4.