by Rohit Chakraborty
(A)thwart the sun: Moina Gogoi was named for the commonest of starlings, a stationary pair found upon a Nahor branch studied through the consumed bars of the window against which Aaita and Ma leaned when the new babe came home. Windows and looking out of them inspire charlatans to poetry. But the sight of the passerines brought about an impulse in the old daughter — new mother, to borrow. And what could be more auspicious After all, mynahs in odd numbers were ill-omen.
‘But Mynah in English is a little feminine, no?’ said Aaita.
‘I don’t see it. Or hear it. But, if you think so, we can spell it the Ahomiya way.’
‘It would have been better if you gave birth to twins. One mynah is bad luck, no?’
How spontaneously he had borrowed the words of de la Mare as the flying white baguette took to the heavens, swooping over names in his high school atlas which were now meandering blue veins or patches of green and brown curved like a balding man’s crown. Moina had not been exempt from flights of fancy; Walter and he were partners, conspirators. Tartary was less than half a day away.
Bed […] of ivory: Gargantuan men with flaxen hair spoke familiar gibberish into their phones. Gliding ladies pushed trollies brimming with bags and children. Pre-Raphaelite babies trod in bomber jackets and frocks with a confidence that would dissipate in the company of fellow pubescents in a decade. At the centre of this whirlpool in Heathrow’s Terminal Four, nineteen-year-old Moina and his Deuta stood fast. Mr Gogoi craned his neck, the best he could do with his five-five frame, to discern his name in a language that was borrowed. Taller than his father by two inches, Moina was not mindful of the luggage he had been asked to look after.
Swallowed by the crowd, Baba returned after a quarter of an hour with an unkempt in-betweener whose collar was stained. The glass doors slid at their approach and welcomed them with the Guwahati winter — London summer breeze. They flit past drab suburbia with the chauffeur arranged by the agent. Whilst Deuta fiddled with his mobile phone, Moina was inundated with contempt that morphed into self-pity. They were fine before the Britons, or as Deuta called them, the “Boga Manuh“. Only last week, he had read about penance prescribed for men who fucked men when Kautilya wrote Arthashastra. A small fine was levied, a little dip in holy water with your clothes on was also on the list, and something to do with cows. But, that godforsaken number, those three digits: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all white men, of course, had catapulted ancient indiscretions to the stratosphere of criminality. And now Elton John is married with kids in his own country. ‘At least it’s the outside air,’ Baba said with the windows rolled down. ‘The air of the plane, the airport, so…conditioned. Artificial. It was as if I were in my own coffin, no?’
‘Baba, we are burned, not buried.’
‘No, no, you get what I’m trying to say. Stifling.’
Ma had often told Moina how he came to be called so. The details seldom changed but the dialogue was as firm as a Bronze Age monument. Perhaps, he would have been better off with another name. It never does to see mynahs if they are not in pairs. And what would Baba say or do if he ever knew? Artificial, he would brush it aside with an impressive swish of his flabby arm.
‘I did not cross the seas to live inside a wardrobe.’ It was a matchbox of a room. Walter, move aside, no time for your daydreaming now. The bed, pushed against the wall, was just enough for father and child, no other soul. The padded chair at the desk was an affronted lover. Upon this desk, things to keep one busy were rather sparse: for the palette, English Breakfast and Assam tea bags, the only two choices, came in Twinings sachets, and an electric kettle wired to the wall had several affairs. Sugar, sugar, Assam, sugar. Milk powder (“tsk,” went Deuta), milk powder, squarish soap, milk powder, all lain on a tray. And for stray thoughts, no stationery? And there’s the window, right there, less than six feet away. And over the foot of the bed, jutting out of the wall, like mocking clocks at railway platforms, the television.
Having wriggled out of their travelling ensembles, each slithered into ill-fitting, spacious pairs of pyjamas — voluminous pockets, drawstrings, the works. As Deuta launched into an angry to-and-fro with the agent, Moina slunk into bed. The call had been a waste, of course. All rooms of that inn were matchboxes, the agent claimed. The bed bobbled, shaking Moina out of the stupor that was churning thick and fast into Tartary.
‘Who is there in Kaziranga?’ Deuta said in the dark, a snippet from a ditty Ma had made up during Moina’s kindergarten days to aid in the memorisation of state animals and their sanctuaries.
‘Rhinos loiter and linger. Why do you ask?’
‘You’ve been here for a few hours now. I was wondering if you are already Englishman now. Where are we going tomorrow?’
‘To the Abbey.’
‘What is there?’
‘That’s where all the kings and queens were coronated.’
‘Coronated? Is that a medical procedure?’
‘No, Deuta. Coronation. Not circumcision. Coronation is when they put the crown on your head. Now, let me sleep. It’s been thirteen hours.’
‘One more questions. Just one.’
‘When you take a picture on your phone, then you post it on the internet, where does it go?’
‘It’s in the cloud.’
‘The cloud,’ he lifted an arm and pointed to the low ceiling. ‘Like where god is?’
‘Yes,’ man, don’t you keep me from the canopied bed of ivory waiting for me in Tartary. ‘Yes.’
‘What if it rains?’
Lord of the fruits: There is a hierarchy among the Nethersexuals. Sahibs of Social Media Glory rule supreme. #blessed: each is aware of their fabulous wealth, of the countenance, and otherwise. As they stand out or merge with their pastel, shades of grey and white, and realist backdrops, a talon emerges from the phone screen and picks at Moina and hereby he ascertains who is a Dicklick and who is not. He is truly gifted. Only a month ago, when Deuta had brought him news of Occidental Tartary, he had felt unfettered. And it was then that he had stumbled upon this gorgeous fledgling closer home albeit on the other side of the country, from the city which bred and infected actors and models. As they are quick with the times, the stunning samples had found their way to the tiles of Instagram. And one of them was a gangly nineteen-year-old with wavy jet-black locks and a wheatish, flawless complexion. The screen had to be brightened for upon this cherub’s visage, Moina looked up his own nose and stole glances at the depressions upon his own cheek. This cherub, with no speckle of facial hair, would have made a glorious woman, at least, that is what Ma would have said. At least that is what Aaita said of Moina. ‘I wish you were a girl,’ she wheezed for it was her time, ‘things would be easier for you, then.’
He was aware of his fabulous wealth. And Moina was unfettered. So, he tracked him down on another channel, and initiated a conversation. If he were to go by the borrowed posts of semi-nude men, subtle hints to alternative sexualities, and an accidental post where this part-time model, full-time fruit declared his electr(on)ic love for Troye Sivan and deleted it in the next ten minutes, then he was right to approach him. He wondered what it would have been like to be his friend or lover, how fortunate it would be to be with someone so beautiful, someone not quite mortal. He had graced the banners of online shopping websites. It was only a matter of time before he flashed across his television. How the cloud had brought mortals closer to .
The chat began rather nicely: an exchange of pleasantries with “Hie thurr” from the knife-edge thin boy who was praised (correction: congratulated) for his gallery (correction: enviable genes), a “thnx boo” that burgeoned Moina’s spirits, and a whole enquiry on musical taste which estranged him rather than endear him. Right, can’t spell, listens to top forty, and is shallow, but I shan’t be a snob, Moina promised himself. He did not wish to drag it out for months, attempting to be an acquaintance, then a flirt, and if it went smoothly, these conversations in the cloud, a lover. He had never known Nethersexuals like himself. So, he asked if he liked men or women or both or neither.
Moina was put in his place. The demi-mortal had access to his face; he launched into an anti-blazon which would give William a run for his money. That was the other thing. People didn’t read enough of Walter. Naturally, they didn’t understand Moina as well as he’d have liked them to. And, once the rant had been complete, Moina returned to the abstinence that was preordained by his mother and his grandmother, to the lower strata where the hashtag would have been a sour mockery.
It was not a breach of privacy this digital love interest had objected to. Moina had not met the aesthetic, it was plain to see. In about a month, a youth magazine published a list of Fifteen Amazing Teenagers You Should Follow, carrying interviews with each. He turned up there, dressed and made-up immaculately.
What would you like to change about your country?
We are very afraid of discussing our sexualities. We should own up to ourselves, stop lying about who we are, and eradicate homophobia.
This excerpt had quadrupled his followers and brought him fawning admirers: you’re so right, you’re so brave, you’re really talking about what needs to be talked about, you’re fabulous.
Through Tartary’s dark glades: In the course of telling one’s story, one will fumble, scramble for words. It is no different than running a comb through a cascade of fine hair; the teeth will often find a knot or two and it then becomes an act of evasion: should one skip the knot, should one comb through it and risk a dislodged strand or pain to the scalp? Now that he was treading the Tartary he had only seen on television screens, Moina had managed to assign Walter’s lending to every street, every room. Those phrases had come swiftly like zebra-drawn carriages of Tartary’s own royalty. But what should he make of this?
‘Where are we going?’ Deuta said.
He merely pointed at the map in his hand where primary colours were arranged like a meticulous network of pipes.
‘Lie Chester?’ Deuta said.
‘Less-ter Square. That’s how it’s said.’
‘What’s the point of so many alphabets? Always complicating stuff, these boga manuh. See, look at our words. What you hear is what you’ll get.’
He had heard many peans sung for the Calcutta Metro, the overhead and underfoot tin caterpillars plodding below the surface like a secret rivulet, emerging to run on level land before rising to the heavens. These were often accompanied by second-hand accounts of the Tube, a hideous name, to the unaccustomed ears. He had imagined a gloomy, wet pipe as the maps had so kindly catalysed it, bereft of light, populated with rodents, newspapers discarded and hovering, and ghosts with Schiavellian eyes, inspired by an accidental intrusion whilst switching channels for Spongebob at eight. Or perhaps something like a wide telephone wire, the child’s plaything like a string from a yarn that connected plastic cups; you arrived at one cup-station, Willy Wonka blew you through the tube, and you arrived safely, and in the same shape and size, at the cup-station on the other end. The box of phantasmagoria had turned his brains to mush.
‘Do you have your camera?’ Deuta said.
‘It’s in my bag.’
‘My phone is enough for me.’
‘Are you going to make me feel bad that I asked you for it?’
‘No, no, not at all.’
Pocketing their three-day Oyster Cards, Deuta skipped into the train. Inside, Moina scrambled for an empty seat. The Piccadilly line was jam-packed with colours of the world and neither could get a seat until Holloway Road. Usually, Deuta offered deserted seats to Moina first, who usually turned them down. In the Tube, he was a different being: he had effortlessly descended, without any negotiation, between an obese pink man in a suit who was reading the Daily Mail with half a mind and a chic black woman with a quilted Gucci.
Tartary had dissolved Deuta. The tall Londoners, the language, and the cold shoulder which bookended all inquiries had taken a toll on his confidence, his self-assured strides. Moina had conversed with the chauffeur and the rude receptionist at the inn and the matronly woman behind the glass at Finsbury Park who was copiously tattooed. It was only a matter of time before he took his father’s hand in his and led him around the city lest he lose himself in a crowd of boga manuh. When another stood up to alight, Moina took a seat. As he sat across his father who studied every commuter as carefully as a schoolchild would, he let the idea of abandoning him in the tunnels of Tartary wash over him. Deuta had always been difficult: short-fused, shortsighted, short of frame and fortune. It had taken them five years to put together a nest for this holiday. Now, as he sat cocooned within himself, he wondered if Deuta had been so when he was a child. He would have liked to get off the train without him but whatever it was, age or the recent past or the oppressive unfamiliarity of the present, the absence of something had sandpapered away much of what he knew of him — the five-five firecracker whose cackles were as infamous as his wrath spurts.
(harp, and flute, and mandolin) When the train started moving and the song had come from some deep recess, an embedded episode he hadn’t reminisced in years, these were not the instruments Moina had identified. Instead, the tabla stood out. And so did the sarod, if it was the sarod at all. There were the strings and perhaps harmoniums or keyboards, he was challenged in that regard. But he did hear a flute somewhere. Then came that majestic voice, the qawwal of the highest order. His voice was a cross between the lilts of a santoor and the precarious china that a potter made into water bowls upon the rims of which a percussionist would conduct a symphony. Ma and Deuta had a Maruti 800 which had to be done away with a few years ago. It could not play CDs and Deuta only bought cassettes. And he had a favourite which no one was allowed to pull out of the case. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan warbled and belted inside the car every time they took a trip. Bollywood pop and boga manuh music was for the house, for mother and child. And of Khan’s songs he played one very often: a seven-minute dirge of an abandoned lover.
Having collected their passes and booklets from a little room underneath the street accessible through a spiral staircase and the leaflets for Bend it Like Beckham at the Phoenix Theatre from the kiosks above it, Moina and Deuta walked towards Trafalgar Square. When they came at Nelson’s Column, Deuta stopped him.
‘Baba, one picture,’ he said.
‘Of me? No.’
‘Please, one picture,’ Deuta brandished his phone and began scrambling for the camera app.
‘Not of me, no.’
‘Then what is the point? I’ll go to the hotel, then.’
‘Wait,’ Moina took off his backpack, leaned against the wall at the rim of the square’s pit, and thought of how grand Deuta made their B&B sound. ‘Here you go?’
‘Give me a pose. Why are you standing like a military man?’
‘That’s how I stand.’
‘You look like you’re in your school assembly.’
‘That’s how I stand.’
After this ordeal, they made their way down the road where Nelson pointed. As they passed a bookshop , Deuta complained of a shooting pain in his soles. Moina knew fully well that it had been an aftereffect of prescription drugs, which Deuta had been consuming diligently by the hands of the clock, and the cheap vodka, which he chugged as if it were from the fountain of youth. On the plane, he had asked Moina’s permission for white wine, which looked like urine to him. How considerate of him. It came in a plastic cup. At home, after midnight, an unscrewing would be heard from the kitchen and it would pierce through the walls and into Moina’s bedroom. The thud of the glass on marble would contend with the cacophony of the television. And how distinct was the clash of vodka against glass. Moina couldn’t keep up with the loud slurps the thin walls wouldn’t keep to themselves. He always found himself slipping into slumbers, sometimes thin, sometimes thick, and waking up to Deuta, sprightly and popping the blood pressure pills that had to be had only on a full stomach. Moina always wondered if he had spent the night away nursing only one drink for he never looked bereft during daytime. But he knew very well that sleep had evaded Deuta for several months now. Which is why they never shared a bed; a slight twitch from Moina or a gentle toss and his father would be up all night. He only wondered what the inn had done for the both of them.
Upon the glistening stone, the sentence was inscribed along the squarish margins:
The first condition of human goodness is something to love;
the second something to reverence.
Deuta was still buzzing from the luxuries which the pass had afforded them. He was on the brink of a little dance when, at the entrance of Westminster Abbey, they were allowed to jump the queue full of boga manuh. However, the ill-lit, high-ceilinged house of worship had been underwhelming for him. ‘I can almost see nothing,’ he complained. ‘And everything looks the same.’ They passed ancient names, and ancient tombs upon which marbled corpses lay with their hands joined in prayer looking directly at the ceiling. Moina was a little bored as well until, in search of a bench for Deuta whose agony had burgeoned with the long walk, he found himself in the Poet’s Corner.
‘These writers, they are all under our feet?’ Deuta asked.
‘Not all of them, no. See, there, George Eliot. Buried at Highgate. This square is just a memorial.’
Deuta stood up with much difficulty and sauntered to the stone. He ran his feet over Eliot’s epitaph. ‘What does it mean?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But it’s fancy English, no? Don’t you understand it?’
‘Was George Eliot a man or a woman?’
‘He was a woman.’
‘You always ask me questions with tricks in them. I always know.’
‘What was her real name?’
Yellow as honey, red as wine: ‘They were very nice, no?’ from Deuta’s fingers, the box of sweets swung from a polythene bag. ‘Who would have thought? Thank god for Bangladeshis. I was beginning to feel lost.’
Moina was a little relieved. A stone’s throw away from their B&B, they had found what was called Mishtighor. Its owner Yunus Rehman had struck a friendship with Deuta while Moina picked out sweets for them. He had a brother-in-law who ran a restaurant a block up the street. ‘The finest Bangla cuisine,’ Rehman said in his thick Bengali accent.
‘Do they have biriyani?’ Moina stood up, alert as a meerkat.
In the three days in Tartary, Deuta’s appetite had dwindled with the Prets and the Starbucks and the hole-in-the-wall restaurants which served tiny pastures on humongous plates. Moina had had it as well.
Inside their room, Moina opened his sweet box and looked wondrously at the golden pedas, a common offering to the gods. ‘Like they make at home, no?’ Deuta said as he took a bite of the round confection, let the tip of his tongue caress the lone strand of saffron and felt the pistachio a little further up; then, in Assamese, he exclaimed, ‘Ah, sweet as honey.’
After a good minute, he asked Moina if he would like to go to the Bangladeshi restaurant and try out the hilsa and the rice, contingent on the availability of the hilsa, of course. Otherwise they could eat the carp curry.
‘No, I walked a lot today.’
‘But I also walked a lot. Come, please. We’ll eat together.’
‘No, I’m fine. I don’t want to.’
‘O.K., then. What will I bring you?’
‘The man said his brother made biriyani, right? Can you get me a box of that?’
After a minute, more brief this time, he left. Moina pulled off his socks and slid under the blanket, absent-mindedly munching the peda which he had in one hand and scrolling through the demi-mortal’s Instagram in another. The effect of each activity cancelled the other out. The fruit had caught the eyes of Harper’s Bazaar, and from his captions he would be on the runway sometime next month. A thousand people liked each of his tiles asking him to check his DMs, where they would make private declarations of love, and be dealt a scornful hand in return. Moina knew he had a lover, there were digital whispers. When the last bite was had, he felt a heaviness, of the party of high-strata boys — the Horlicks Dicklicks, as he called them (Ma dismissed all addendum, powdered or otherwise, to what was the ultimate drink for the growing child — the tumbler of untampered milk — as “artificial”) all sitting on him as if he were a padded settee at the National Portrait Gallery. On Oxford Street today, a set of pubescents had quietly joked among themselves as the Gogois passed them, ‘Ugly fuckin’ Pakis.’ And one of them remarked: ‘D’you see the granddad? Mongolian bulldog.’
‘It’s very weird, no?’ Deuta waddled into the room with the box of biriyani. ‘It’s eight o’clock and the sun is still up. Here you go. Here are the plastic spoons and the forks. Here are the napkins. I bought a bottle of water. One pound, can you believe it? Hundred rupees for a bottle of water. O.K., I’ll go now. The brother-in-law was in Kokrajhar for two years. can you believe it? My home. He speaks a little Ahomiya too. Very bad, but still. I’ll go, O.K. Oh, before I leave, what was that thing we saw today?’
‘The one that looks like a plane has been made to stand like a rocket.’
Their biriyani was a box of yellow rice with shreds of chicken. At least it was chicken and rice, still. Oh, rice, those sweet, precious grains, elusive in the Occident. With one hand he put scoopfuls into his mouth. With another, he debated whether he should follow the Russian illustrator that had been suggested by artificial intelligence. He did. And for half a minute he scanned other suggestions which appeared underneath the “Following” button.
There he was, the Mongolian bulldog, nahorgogoi, an old sepia passport-size picture photographed and set in the circular profile box. Of all the places to find Deuta, he found him in the cloud. It was before Moina was born, before he had met Ma, when he worked for the pharmaceutical company and kept a pencil moustache which looked like it had been painted on. He was emaciated and had black cauliflower florets for hair. More of a pup before age had pulled down his face and his back, he looked more like Moina, who was far better-fed. Under his thumb, his father unravelled his Instagram:
19 1 1
posts followers following
This account is private.
(Wane the morning star) Like Deuta, Ma had her favourite pastime — chewing tobacco that came in large tin cans. How a term of endearment had terminated her: Baba 120 had brought upon a heart disease. He remembered Ma reminiscing with her schoolmates a particular incident where the Geography teacher had instructed her to splash water on her face because she appeared nauseated. In sooth, she had stolen some zarda from Aaita and chewed it on her way to school. Moina had passed through this rite when he was fifteen, surreptitiously inhaling from the can and pouring the brown flakes with shards of silver and whatnot upon his palm. It had singed the tip of his tongue, which kept throbbing several hours after this thievery.
In a mangled fashion, as he returned to his bed of ivory, Moina repeated the phrase over and over again, sounding the alarm for the descent of the morning star. In that in-between land between Tartary and Harringey, Ma appeared once more, pudgy and balding, her hair in a bun, emptying the Baba 120 can as her bangles jingled. She cackled and sprinkled into her open mouth the zarda like grains of sand. Wane the morning star, wane the morning star. Away, away. She gulped it all without a chew. And then she let out a prolonged burp of fire, a circus feat, which withered her, until her skin sagged, her hair silvered, and she whimpered her will: ‘But I haven’t been to Tartary. I have always wanted to go.’
‘Do you like it here?’ Baba had returned slurring his speech. He seemed to have be talking to himself. ‘Is another world, no? Rehman Bhai gave me tonic. No charge. Was happy to see Ahomiya.’
And, with his mobile still in his hand, he collapsed upon the bed, beside Moina, reeking of wine. The phone slid out of his grasp. There it was nahorgogoi uncensored and accessible: slightly disgruntled, Moina examined each tile. In one tile he found himself standing against Nelson’s column, grimacing and in another looking at the Thames with the Tower Bridge in the background, grimacing. Under the bust of Byron he stood, grimacing and half in shadow and nahorgogoi captioned it with Moina told me that he is a romantic poet and liked to do sex with lot of woman. Before the gherkin he stood with a milder grimace, the newest addition, made only two hours ago. nahorgogoi wrote: It is the gerkin. Does it not look like a penis? Moina smiles better here no?
And there it was, smack in the heart of the tiles, Moina’s back as he glided towards the tunnels of the Tube on the escalator. When had he taken that? With his black backpack, Moina admired how at one with the crowd he looked despite it being otherwise. And underneath that square, a conversation had begun between man and ghost, its composers sounding understandably similar:
nahorgogoiMoina going down to catch train. 3d
mominabarua He has become very thin. 3d
nahorgogoi It is very hard to speak and be here. Very hard also to
raise him alone. He is very quiet. Very cut-cut with
mominabarua Walk behind him. Don’t walk in front of him. You
both will get lost. 21h
nahorgogoi You should have been careful with the leaves. 20h
mominabarua See I learned my lesson. Now you pace yourself with
the tonic. Don’t follow me to the cloud. 1h
Moina clicked on his mother’s posthumous Instagram:
0 1 1
posts followers following
This account is private.
They sat beside each other in the train bounding through coniferous terrains to Edinburgh. They sat in silence munching through their sandwiches. The lady pushing the trolley had offered Deuta tonic. He had turned her down. A couple sat on the other side of the tabletop, freshly in love, locking lips every quarter of an hour. She was white blonde. He was prematurely balding. Deuta looked out of the window studying the country. Moina listened to Amy Winehouse Live at BBC Sessions but her ballad was overshadowed by Nusrat’s ghost tune. It had been childish of him to chase Tartary, Moina thought. Its lord was flawed. Myself and me alone. No other lord nor lady by him. He was and would be forever more lovesick or lovelorn; Mare had dictated so. As Amy and Nusrat separated Nahor and Moina, the two bereft, Moina knew that every Tartary was autonomous. In his, a revered wordsmith had subtracted the matters of the heart. In Deuta’s, the stone of Ms. Evans had turned his love into something to revere.
Photograph by Mostaque Chowdhury.
About the Author:
Rohit Chakraborty was born in Guwahati, Assam, in 1995, and was educated in Guwahati and Calcutta. His short stories have appeared in Kindle Magazine, Squawk Back, and Pif Magazine. He has also been published in Open Road Review, Campus Diaries, and The Bangalore Review. In 2016, Chakraborty was the recipient of the inaugural Campus Diaries 25 Under 25 Prize in the Writing category. Chakraborty is presently reading for a Master’s in World Literatures in English at the University of Oxford.