Monday, February 23, 2009

Zeenat Comes Calling

I am back in Kathmandu, after an eventful border-crossing, which cost me a lot of money, to be honest, although none of it went in bribes. Tangawallahs, customs, buswallahs, hotelwallahs... I wish people sold their service in a more straightforward, more honest manner.

Dal-bhat never tasted as good as the dal-bhat in Palung, where I finally got to eat after almost 24 hours of nothing but a bottle of Sprite.

Back to the grind, now, feeling much poor, but still a little tired, a little lazy.

So, Sophie Butcher, as I said I would, here is yesterday's TKP essay:

Zeenat Comes Calling

[I can't find a link to the "expressions" page in TKP's archives for yesterday, but I did see it in print, this morning, in yesterday's paper]

It is not easy on the nerves, I discover and resist, the waiting for a foretold guest: I have to clean the house, clean the kitchen, prepare a meal. Hell if I will, I think, I say aloud, walk out to throw a robust tantrum, but there is no point in protesting: the guest is special to those who will bring her to their home. I am incidental to the scene, so I must attend to matters peripheral. And, it is a moral trap they set for me: she is old and she is alone, they remind me, as if drafting an initial list of characteristics against offences to which I have taken a vow. But, they implore with a passion that breaks their voices and brings tears to their eyes—It is Zeenat Aman! How can you! Just be nice!

So I clean the house. I even take the trash out to the pile where there is always a soul or two keeping vigil. I swing the bagful of refuse in a circle a few times before letting it fly, aiming for the largest cluster of crows picking apart another clump of rubbish. The birds squawk; some leap and flit, more experienced and athletic ones affect a short, effective hop away from the missile's target, but saunter back to pry and peck at the bag. To them, my intentions mean nothing: to them the material mysteries of the universe are better revealed. They know how a thrown thing, or my maniacal shine of murder for them, pertains to their peculiar existence. A woman emerges from the shadows to wave her stick at the birds, gives me a look which humiliates me deeply in a way I have never before known, before prying apart the plastic bag that flew from my hand. She combs through the rubbish: from it she takes the milk-packet plastic, the big-mall plastic bag, the drinking-water plastic bottle, the twisted-up roll of newspaper with its achar-stained opinion page. There is in the bag, with potato and potol peel, shame wrapped in layers.

Italo Calvino writes in an essay about living in France the idea that what we throw away is truest measure of how we have lived. In it is proof of what we have touched and modified, what we have produced but failed to sell, the detritus of what we piece together to live and pursue security and satisfaction. If I have thrown away, with theatrical flair, constitutes that which somebody else ekes a living out of, there is something very wrong with the picture.

I am incapable of averting my gaze, and she from me, as we labor in this mutual bond: I try the suave luxury of creating a condition, while she rubs against the coarseness of it. I flee, I rush towards the market. Rohu fish is preferred over meat. Cauliflower and peas are always pleasant. I can cook lauka for daal.

I am still cleaning when Elena rings the bell, once, twice, six times before I have washed my hand and walked to the door. She is alone. This is the fourth day she has returned without Zeenat Aman, on each day putting me to work cooking four-course meals. I am about to let spew my usual: “What the hell!”

She asks me instead to run down the stairs to carry Zeenat Aman home. I run downstairs. Zeenat Aman refuses to be carried. She can't really see, but she bravely tries to keep up appearances, like that forger-thief in The Great Escape. She has to surreptitiously throw her hands ahead to read her environment's tactile makeup. From her muttering, I surmise that she imagines she is still in her neighborhood of Topsia, going up a few steps to a shop she knows. The third floor apartment is five flights up.

Sophie holds Zeenat Aman’s hands as their eyes lock in a silent embrace. They are as alien to each other as foreignness can get: Sophie is a twenty year old student from a Sidney suburb; Zeenat Aman has lived in the streets of Kolkata since she was ten years old. Her father came from Bengal to pull a rickshaw and was promptly digested by the metropolis, followed within months by his wife. Zeenat Aman is senile now, has been cared for by the poorest of Kolkata’s poor because she was once able-bodied, genial, and charitable in her own capacity. Now they hold hands, one pair of eyes keen, the other feeble, turned away from a world that has revealed too much of itself.

She keeps searching for her hair. “We don’t cut our hair until we die,” she says, miming a veil of tresses over a dead woman’s breasts. She tries to recognize me, speaks a few words in Bangla, few more in Urdu. “Where is the salt?” Zeenat Aman demands. “Too much rice. Of course, I can eat fish. Who cooked this spinach?” Elena tries to convince her that the spinach is good for the eyes. Zeenat Aman pushes a large scoop of it into her mouth, spits in disgust. She demands that her chappals be brought to her. She stands leaning on her walking stick. “I am going home,” she declares. Then she falls on a mattress in the corner, careful to let her feet hang to a side, and snores softly.

It is impossible to enter the bathroom: the putrid sick-sweet smell of layers of slough and skin cling to the walls and tiles. Elena and Sophie have washed Zeenat Aman twice, cutting her hair, delousing and rubbing an ointment to kill the scabies on her body. After five strong washes, the stained gray sari they brought her in emerges a startling, heart-breaking pink. Elena has dressed her in a sari the color of fresh turmeric roots. Zeenat Aman has left nothing in the corner where she had been living for the past few years because she has brought her walking stick and her chappals with her. In perhaps an hour, she will have to leave, for a new life in a nursing home. Even in her sleep the walking stick is just an inch away from a hand that twitches in a dream. Her feet hover over the dear pair of chappals.

She sits up in a fit and says something in Bangla. There is a knot she has tied into the new sari: it is a pouch of tobacco. She brings it up to her face, is satisfied, falls back to sleep. “She thinks we are going to steal her tobacco,” Elena says. Sophie and I chuckle. We sit motionless, riveted by the sight of an old woman sleeping in the corner where I usually sleep. Zeenat Aman turns in her sleep, and her feet are no longer hovering over the chappals. She must feel at home.


  1. Hello. This post is likeable, and your blog is very interesting, congratulations :-). I will add in my blogroll =)THANX FOR


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  2. Prawin! Thank you for posting this!.. just came back to find it. It's written beautifully. Hope you're well and still smiling. Sophie

  3. p.s. i'm a little lost for words.


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