Going Away

In 1939, thirteen years before I was born, my father’s aunt, Mayadebi, went to England with her husband and her son, Tridib.

It startles me now to discover how readily the name comes off my pen as ‘Mayadebi’ for I have never spoken of her thus; not aloud, at any rate: as my grandmother’s only sister, she was always Mayathakuma to me. But still, from as far back as I can remember, I have known her, in the secrecy of my mind, as ‘Mayadebi’ – as though she were a well-known stranger, like a film star or a politician whose picture I had seen in a newspaper. Perhaps it was merely because I knew her very little, for she was not often in Calcutta. That explanation seems likely enough, but I know it to be untrue. The truth is that I did not want to think of her as a relative: to have done that would have diminished her and her family – I could not bring myself to believe that their worth in my eyes could be reduced to something so arbitrary and unimportant as a blood relationship.

Mayadebi was twenty-nine when they left, and Tridib was eight.

Over the years, although I cannot remember when it happened any more than I can remember when I first learnt to tell the time or tie my shoelaces, I have come to believe that I was eight too when Tridib first talked to me about that journey. I remember trying very hard to imagine him back to my age, to reduce his height to mine, and to think away the spectacles that were so much a part of him that I really believed he had been born with them. It wasn’t easy, for to me he looked old, impossibly old, and I could not remember him looking anything other than old – though, in fact, at that time he could not have been much older than twenty-nine. In the end, since I had nothing to go on, I had decided that he had looked like me.

But my grandmother, when I asked her, was very quick to contradict me. She shook her head firmly, looking up from her schoolbooks, and said: No, he looked completely different – not at all like you.

My grandmother didn’t approve of Tridib. He’s a loafer and a wastrel, I would sometimes hear her saying to my parents; he doesn’t do any proper work, lives off his father’s money.

To me, she would only allow herself to say with a sardonic little twist of her mouth: I don’t want to see you loafing about with Tridib; Tridib wastes his time.

It didn’t sound terrible, but in fact, in my grandmother’s usage, there was nothing very much worse that could be said of anyone. For her, time was like a toothbrush: it went mouldy if it wasn’t used. I asked her once what happened to wasted time. She tossed her small silvery head, screwed up her long nose and said: It begins to stink.

As for herself, she had been careful to rid our little flat of everything that might encourage us to let our time stink. No chessboard nor any pack of cards ever came through our door; there was a battered Ludo set somewhere but I was allowed to play with it only when I was ill. She didn’t even approve of my mother listening to the afternoon radio play more than once a week. In our flat we all worked hard at whatever we did: my grandmother at her schoolmistressing; I at my homework; my mother at her housekeeping; my father at his job as a junior executive in a company which dealt in vulcanised rubber.

Our time wasn’t given the slightest opportunity to grow mouldy.

That was why I loved to listen to Tridib: he never seemed to use his time, but his time didn’t stink.

Sometimes Tridib would drop in to see us without warning. My grandmother, for all her disapproval of him, would be delighted whenever he came – partly because she was fond of him in her own way, but mainly because Tridib and his family were our only rich relatives, and it flattered her to think that he had gone out of his way to come and see her.

But of course, she knew, though she wouldn’t admit it, that he had really come to nurse his stomach. The truth was that his digestion was a mess; ruined by the rivers of hard-boiled tea he had drunk at roadside stalls all over south Calcutta. Every once in a while a rumble in his bowels would catch him unawares on the streets and he would have to sprint for the nearest clean lavatory.

This condition was known to us as Tridib’s Gastric.

Once every few months or so we would answer the doorbell and find him leaning against the wall, his legs tightly crossed, the sweat starting from his forehead. But he wouldn’t come in right away: there was a careful etiquette attached to these occasions. My parents and grandmother would collect at the doorway and, ignoring his writhings, would proceed to ask him about his family’s doings and whereabouts, and he in turn, smiling fixedly, would ask them how they were, and how I was, and finally, when it had been established to everyone’s satisfaction that he had come on a Family Visit, he would shoot through the door straight into the lavatory. When he emerged again he would be his usual nonchalant, collected self; he would sink into our ‘good’ sofa and the ritual of the Family Visit would begin. My grandmother would hurry into the kitchen to make him an omelette – a leathery little squiggle studded with green chillies, which would lie balefully on its plate, silently challenging Gastric to battle. This was the greatest sign of favour she could show to a visitor – an omelette made with her own hands (it fell to the less favoured to feast on my mother’s masterly tidbits – hot shingaras stuffed with mincemeat and raisins, or crisp little dalpuris).

Sometimes, watching him as he chewed upon her omelette, she would ask: And how is Gastric? or: Is Gastric better now? Tridib would merely nod casually and change the subject; he didn’t like to talk about his digestion – it was the only evidence of prudery I ever saw in him. But since I always heard my grandmother using that word as a proper noun, I grew up believing that ‘Gastric’ was the name of an organ peculiar to Tridib – a kind of aching tooth that grew out of his belly button. Of course, I never dared ask to see it.

Despite the special omelette, however, my grandmother would not let him stay long. She believed him to be capable of exerting his influence at a distance, like a baneful planet – and since she also believed the male, as a species, to be naturally frail and wayward, she would not allow herself to take the risk of having him for long in our flat where I, or my father, might be tempted to move into his orbit.

I didn’t mind particularly, for Tridib was never at his best in our flat. I far preferred to run into him at the street corners in our neighbourhood. It didn’t happen very often – no more than once a month perhaps – but still, I took his presence on these streets so much for granted that it never occurred to me that I was lucky to have him in Calcutta at all.

Tridib’s father was a diplomat, an officer in the Foreign Service. He and Mayadebi were always away, abroad or in Delhi; after intervals of two or three years they would sometimes spend a couple of months in Calcutta, but that was all. Of Tridib’s two brothers, Jatin-kaku, the elder, who was two years older than Tridib, was an economist with the UN. He was always away too, somewhere in Africa or South East Asia, with his wife and his daughter Ila, who was my age. The third brother, Robi, who was much younger than the other two, having been born after his mother had had several miscarriages, lived with his parents wherever they happened to be posted until he was sent away to boarding school at the age of twelve.

So Tridib was the only person in his family who had spent most of his life in Calcutta. For years he had lived in their vast old family house in Ballygunge Place with his ageing grandmother.

My grandmother claimed that he had stayed on in Calcutta only because he didn’t get along with his father. This was one of her complaints against him: not that he didn’t get along with his father, for she didn’t much care for his father either – but that he had allowed something like that to interfere with his prospects and career. For her, likes and dislikes were unimportant compared to the business of fending for oneself in the world: as far as she was concerned it was not so much odd as irresponsible of Tridib to shut himself away in that old house with his grandmother; it showed him up as an essentially lightweight and frivolous character. She might have changed her opinion if he had been willing to marry and settle down (and she hadn’t any doubt at all that she could have found him a rich wife), but every time she suggested it he merely laughed. This was further proof that he lacked that core of gravity and determination which distinguishes all responsible and grown-up men; a sure sign that he was determined to waste his life in idle self-indulgence. And yet, although she would pretend to dismiss him with a toss of her head, she never ceased to be wary of him, to warn me against his influence: at heart she believed that all men would be like him if it were not for their mothers and wives.

She would often try to persuade me that she pitied him. Poor Tridib, she would say. There’s nothing in the world he couldn’t have done with his connections – he could have lived like a lord and run the country. And look at him – oh, poor Tridib – living in that crumbling house, doing nothing.

But even as a child I could tell she didn’t pity him at all – she feared him.

Of course, even she would acknowledge sometimes that Tridib did not really do ‘nothing’. In fact, he was working on a PhD in archaeology – something to do with sites associated with the Sena dynasty of Bengal. But this earned him very little credit in my grandmother’s eyes. Being a schoolteacher herself, she had an inordinate respect for academic work of any kind: she saw research as a life-long pilgrimage which ended with a named professorship and a marble bust in the corridors of Calcutta University or the National Library. It would have been a travesty to think of an irresponsible head like Tridib’s mounted in those august corridors.

Part of the reason why my grandmother was so wary of him was that she had seen him a couple of times at the street corners around Gole Park where we lived. She had a deep horror of the young men who spent their time at the street-corner addas and tea-stalls around there. All failcases, she would sniff; think of their poor mothers, flung out on dung-heaps, starving …

Seeing Tridib there a few times was enough to persuade her that he spent all his time at those addas, gossiping: it seemed to fit with the rest of him.

But the truth was that Tridib came there rarely, not more than once or twice a month. I would usually hear when he came: Nathu Chaubey, the paanwala who sat in the stall at the corner of our lane, or my friend Montu, who could see the far side of the lane from his bathroom window, or someone at the second-hand bookstalls, would tell me. They all knew I was related to Tridib.

When I go past Gole Park now I often wonder whether that would happen today. I don’t know, I can’t tell: that world is closed to me, shut off by too many years spent away. Montu went away to America years ago and Nathu Chaubey, I heard, went back to Benares and started a hotel. When I walk past his paan-shop now and look at the crowds thronging through those neon-lit streets, the air-conditioned shops packed in with rickety stalls and the tarpaulin counters of pavement vendors, at the traffic packed as tight as a mail train all the way to the Dhakuria overbridge, somehow, though the paan-shop hasn’t changed, I find myself doubting it. At that time, in the early sixties, there were so few cars around there that we thought nothing of playing football on the streets around the roundabout – making way occasionally for the number 9, or any other bus that happened to come snorting along. There were only a few scattered shacks on Gariahat Road then, put up by the earliest refugees from the east. Gole Park was considered to be more or less outside Calcutta: in school when I said I lived there the boys from central Calcutta would often ask me if I caught a train every morning, as though I lived in some far-flung refugee camp on the border.

I would usually hear that Tridib was around on my way back from our evening cricket game in the park. My cricket game was the one thing for which my grandmother never grudged me time away from my homework: on the contrary, she insisted that I run down to the park by the lake whether I wanted to or not. You can’t build a strong country, she would say, pushing me out of the house, without building a strong body.

She would watch from her window to make sure I ran all the way to the park.

But if I happened to hear that Tridib was around I would double back through the park and the back lanes. Someone would always be able to tell me where he was: he was a familiar figure within the floating, talkative population of students and would-be footballers and bank clerks and small-time politicos and all the rest who gravitated towards that conversation-loving stretch of road between Gariahat and Gole Park. It did not occur to me then to wonder why he was well known, or known at all – I simply took the fact for granted, and was grateful for the small privileges his presence secured for me on those streets: for the odd sweet given to me by a shopkeeper of his acquaintance; for being rescued from a fight in the park by some young fellow who knew him. But in fact it seems something of a mystery to me now, why they put up with him: he was never one of them, he didn’t even live there, and he often didn’t have much to say. He was usually content to listen to their loud quicksilver conversations in silence: often when he came he would have about him the tired, withdrawn air of a man who has risen from some exhausting labour and ventured out to distract himself.

But occasionally, when he was in the mood and somebody happened to say something that made a breach in his vast reservoirs of abstruse information, he would begin to hold forth on all kinds of subjects – Mesopotamian stelae, East European jazz, the habits of arboreal apes, the plays of Garcia Lorca, there seemed to be no end to the things he could talk about. On those evenings, looking at the intent faces of his listeners, watching his thin, waspish face, his tousled hair and his bright black eyes glinting behind his gold-rimmed glasses, I would be close to bursting with pride.

But even at those times, when he was the centre of everybody’s attention, there was always something a little detached about his manner. He did not seem to want to make friends with the people he was talking to, and that perhaps was why he was happiest in neutral, impersonal places – coffee houses, bars, street-corner addas – the sort of places where people come, talk and go away without expecting to know each other any further. That was also why he chose to come all the way from Ballygunge to Gole Park for his addas – simply because it was far enough for him to be sure that he wouldn’t meet any of his neighbours there.

Perhaps they put up with him simply because he wasn’t like them, because he was different – partly also because they were a little frightened of him: of the occasional, devastating sharpness of his tongue, and of the oddly disconcerting streams of talk that would suddenly come gushing out of him. But of course, he also had his uses: there was a streak of intensely worldly shrewdness in him which would stand them in good stead every once in a while. For example, he would give a student precise and detailed instructions on how to write an examination paper, because he happened to know that Professor So-and-so was going to correct it, and he liked answers that were slanted just so, and the student would do as he had said, and get a first class. Or else when someone was going to appear for a job interview he would tell him what he was likely to be asked, and when the interview was over it would turn out that Tridib’s predictions had been dead right. But equally his advice would sometimes seem deliberately misleading, perverse. Once, for instance, he told a young man who was going to be interviewed by a multinational company that the firm, once famous for its stuffiness, had recently been bought by a Marwari businessman and become very nationalist, and that he would not stand any chance at all of getting in unless he went to the interview dressed in a dhoti. The young man went off to the interview duly clad in dhoti, and found that the doorman wouldn’t let him in.

Nobody was ever quite sure where they stood with Tridib: there was a casual self-mockery about many of the things he said which left his listeners uncertain about whether they ought to take what he said at face value or believe its opposite. As a result, inevitably, there were all kinds of conflicting rumours about him – especially because he was secretive about his family and his circumstances to an extraordinary degree – even more than was wholly warranted by the fact that everybody young was turning Maoist at that time. Someone would remark knowingly that he had heard that Tridib’s family was rich and powerful, that his father was a diplomat, the son of a wealthy judge, and his brother was a brilliant economist who had a job with the UN and lived abroad. But no sooner would he say it than a sceptical voice would cut him short and say: Where do you live, mairi? D’you think we’ve all dropped out of the sky that we’ll believe all that – don’t you know he’s married and has three children and lives with his widowed mother in a slum near Santoshpur?

And since there was something just a little improbable about the son of a diplomat, scion of a rich and powerful family, turning up at those street corners for years on end, it was the latter kind of story that people tended to believe. Sometimes I would try to tell them the truth. But I was just a boy and I happened to have a reputation for being wide-eyed and gullible. Besides, they all knew we lived in a small flat down the lane; if I had tried too hard to persuade them that we had rich and powerful relatives they would only have thought that I was giving myself airs.

When I was about nine Tridib once stayed away from his haunts in Gole Park for so long that the regulars began to wonder what had happened to him. I was the only one who knew, because I had stopped by at his house once (as I often did in those days) on my way to my maths tutor’s house, in the afternoon. This was during the time he was telling me the story of his journey to England in instalments.

I had found him, as always, lying on a mat in his room at the top of the house, reading, with a cigarette smouldering in an ashtray beside him. When I told him that people were asking about him at Gole Park, he put a finger to his lips.

Shh, he said. Don’t tell them a thing. Do you know what? I think I may have discovered the mound where the kings of the Sena dynasty used to bury their treasure. If the government finds out, they’ll take everything. Don’t say a word to anyone and don’t come here again for a while – you may be followed by secret agents.

I was thrilled: I hugged the secret to my chest every time I was asked about him. He’d gone, I would say. He’s vanished.

Then, one evening, on my way to the park, I heard he’d surfaced at Gole Park again. I doubled back and found him at his favourite adda, on the steps of an old house, surrounded by his acquaintances. I waved to him, from between someone’s legs, but he was busy answering their questions and didn’t see me.

Where have you been all this while, Tridib-da? somebody said. It must be three or four months …

I’ve been away, I heard him say, and nodded secretly to myself.

Away? Where?

I’ve been to London, he said. To visit my relatives. His face was grave, his voice steady.

What relatives?

I have English relatives through marriage, he said. A family called Price. I thought I’d go and visit them.

Ignoring their sceptical grunts, he told them that he had been to stay with old Mrs Price, who was a widow. Her husband had died recently. She lived in north London, he said, on a street called Lymington Road; the number of their house was 44 and the tube station was West Hampstead. Mrs Price had a daughter, who was called May.

And what’s she like? a voice asked. Sexy?

He reflected on that for a moment, and said, no, she wasn’t sexy, not in the ordinary way – she was thick-set, with broad shoulders, and not very tall. She wasn’t beautiful or even pretty in the usual sense, for she had a strong face and a square jaw, but she had thick straight hair which came down to her shoulders in a glossy black screen, like a head-dress in an Egyptian frieze, and she had a wonderful, warm smile which lit up her blue eyes and gave her a quality all her own, set her apart.

And what does she do? someone sneered. Is she a wrestler or a hairdresser?

She’s a student, said Tridib. At least, a kind of student – she’s studying at the Royal College of Music. She plays the oboe, and one day she’s going to join an orchestra.

It was then, I think, that I could restrain myself no longer. I thrust myself forward through the thicket of trousered legs and cried: Tridib-da, you’ve made a mistake! I met you last month, don’t you remember? You were in your room, lying on your mat, smoking a cigarette. You were looking for …

There was a howl of laughter and a chorus of exclamations: You fraud, you liar, you were just making it all up, you haven’t been anywhere …

Tridib did not seem to be at all put out, either by what I had said or by their laughter. He laughed too, shrugging good-naturedly, and said: If you believe anything people tell you, you deserve to be told anything at all …

Leaning towards me, he pinched my cheek and grinned. Isn’t that so? he said, with an interrogatory nod, his spectacles glinting in the lamplight.

His aplomb gave an uneasy edge to the laughter and the comments around him: it seemed now that he had made them the victims of a complicated private joke. There was an edgy hostility in their voices when he left. You can’t believe a word he says, somebody exclaimed, he just likes to bamboozle people and play jokes on them. But another, sharper voice broke in and said: Joke? He wasn’t joking, he believed everything he said: it was no joke, the fact is that he’s a nut – he’s never been anywhere outside Calcutta.

I was furious with myself now for having exposed Tridib to their ridicule. You don’t know what you’re talking about, I cried. I was shouting at the top of my voice, so they listened.

Still shouting, I told them the truth as I knew it: that Tridib had been to London, with his parents, many years ago, when he was a boy. They had taken his father there for an operation, which couldn’t be done in India. They had had to go, even though it was 1939 and they knew there might be a war. His brother Jatin had been left behind in Calcutta with his grandparents because he was older and couldn’t be away from school for so long. And yes, there was a family called Price, who lived in West Hampstead, but they weren’t relatives – they were very, very old friends of Tridib’s family, because Mrs Price’s father, Lionel Tresawsen, had lived in India when the British were here, and he and Tridib’s grandfather, who was a very important man, a judge in the Calcutta High Court, had been friends. Long after Lionel Tresawsen went back to England his daughter had married a man who had taught her in college, whom everyone called Snipe because his name was S. N. I. Price. When she’d heard that Tridib’s father was ill she had written to them and sent telegrams to say that they must stay with her in London, because she’d bought a big house, and she’d been wanting to take in lodgers anyway. And it was true that she had a daughter called May, but she was a little baby when Tridib was in London, and as far as I knew he hadn’t seen her since. And Mrs Price had had a brother too, called Alan, who had been in Germany before the war …

I gave up, exhausted.

That’s an even better version than Tridib’s, somebody said, with a snort of laughter.

It’s true, I shouted back at him. If you don’t believe me, ask …

Tridib? A voice prompted, and they doubled up with laughter.

I pushed my way out and ran all the way down the lane and up the two flights of stairs to our flat. I was an hour late, and my grandmother was very angry. In her controlled, headmistress’s voice she asked me where I had been, and when I didn’t answer she raised her hand, drew it back and slapped me. Where have you been? she asked again, and this time I blurted out that I’d been down at the corner. She slapped me again, really hard. Haven’t I told you, she said, you’re not to go there and waste your time? Time is not for wasting, time is for work.

I met May Price for the first time two years after that incident, when she came to Calcutta on a visit. The next time I met her was seventeen years later, when I went to London myself.

I went to England on a year’s research grant, to collect material from the India Office Library, where all the old colonial records were kept, for a PhD thesis on the textile trade between India and England in the nineteenth century. More than a month passed after I arrived in London, before I could meet May again.

I had to go to a great deal of trouble to find her. She was playing in an orchestra and living on her own in a bedsit in Islington. Mrs Price gave me her phone number and I called her several times, but she was never in. And then, one morning, while looking through the entertainment page of the Guardian, I saw a notice which said that her orchestra would be playing the Dvorák Cello Concerto that evening at the Royal Festival Hall.

I went there early that evening: I could only afford a ticket for a place on one of the benches behind the orchestra, and I had heard they sometimes sold out very early. But as it turned out I managed to get a seat quite easily: the soloist was a Swedish cellist who clearly did not have much drawing power.

When I went in, I discovered that my seat was directly behind the woodwind section. Soon I saw her; she was fussing with her music-stand, dressed, like all the other women in the orchestra, in a black skirt and white blouse. I watched her as she arranged her music and chatted with an elderly horn player who was sitting in front of her. Her hair was still cut exactly as I remembered it from the time she had stayed with us in Calcutta: falling thick and straight to her shoulders, mantling her neck and the sides of her face; but where I remembered it as dark and shiny, it was streaked now with bands of grey which shimmered when they caught the light. Her shoulders, always broad for her height, had thickened; she seemed almost top-heavy now, for she hadn’t added an inch to her waist. I caught a glimpse of her face when she turned to say something to a woman who was sitting in the row behind. She had deep lines running from the corner of her mouth to her nose, and her eyes, which had once been a clear, bright blue, had grown pale and prominent.

Watching her through that concert, I thought of her as she was when she came to stay with us in Calcutta, all those years ago. We had moved to a much larger house then, and she had been given the guest room, downstairs. In the evenings, whenever I managed to elude my mother and grandmother (who didn’t want me to bother her), I would slip into her room, sit on the floor and listen to her playing scales on the recorder she had brought to practice on. Often she would blush with embarrassment, put her recorder down and say: Look, this must be so boring for you, all these horrible scales.

But I wouldn’t let her stop. I would insist that she go on playing, and I would sit there entranced, and watch her blowing into her recorder, frowning, the muscles in her cheeks knotting in concentration.

She was not frowning when she played in that concert in the Festival Hall: it was evident that her mastery of her instrument was so complete now that she had to give little thought to the music. All through that concert she, and most of the other musicians around her, performed with a bored mechanical precision, very much like veteran soldiers going through a familiar exercise at their sergeantmajor’s command.

When the concert was over I waited in my seat until the audience had left and the members of the orchestra were busy packing their instruments. Then I leant over the railing and called out her name. She looked up, narrowing her eyes. She saw me and gave me a politely puzzled smile. Then, to my surprise, she recognised me, and her face lit up and she waved. Pointing at the exit she mouthed the words: I’ll see you outside.

I went out into the plush, chandeliered foyer and waited. Five minutes later, I saw her, picking her way through the last stragglers, her shoulders rolling, like a boxer’s, as she walked towards me. We met half-way down the foyer and froze in mutual embarrassment. She put out a tentative hand, and then suddenly she smiled, rose on tiptoe, pulled my head down and kissed me on the cheeks, her oboe clattering against my neck in its leather case.

As we made our way out, I asked her how she had recognised me, after all those years. She gave it a moment’s thought and said: I put two and two together I suppose – I knew you were in London; Mother told me.

She stopped to give me a quick, appraising look. And besides, she said, it’s not as though you don’t bear a family resemblance to the boy I met in Calcutta – and I remember him very well.

Her voice had a deep, gravelly, almost masculine texture; I couldn’t decide whether it had always been like that or whether it had changed.

While she was leading me towards Waterloo tube station through a maze of concrete walkways, she stopped to ask: Have you got anything planned for the rest of the evening?

I shook my head, trying not to look too eager.

Well, she said, pausing to think; you could always come back with me to my bedsit, for dinner. I can’t offer you very much – just a beansprout salad and some grilled fish. I don’t know whether you care for that kind of thing?

Yes, I said, nodding. That would be very nice.

She gave me a quick smile. If it’s any consolation, she said, remember I sprouted the beans myself.

In the tube, on our way to Islington, I told her how bored she had looked through the concert. She nodded sheepishly. Yes, she said; you’ve guessed my guilty secret. I only stay on with the orchestra because I’ve got to make a living somehow …

She cleared her throat, hesitated, and went on to add: You know – I spend most of my time working for Amnesty and Oxfam and a couple of other relief agencies, small ones, you won’t have heard of them.

I asked her a few questions and she described the project she was working on just then with a businesslike briskness: it was something to do with providing housing for the survivors of an earthquake in Central America. It was evident that she found a great deal of satisfaction in her work.

Her room was on the first floor of a house that looked out on Islington Green. As she stepped in and switched on the lights, a television set near her bed lit up too, automatically. She hurried across the room and switched it off.

Turning to face me she said, guiltily, as though she were making a confession: I leave it on all the time. It’s my only real indulgence. It fills up the room – it feels a bit empty otherwise.

It was a large, pleasant room, full of plants; its windows looked out over the trees on the Green. There was very little furniture in it – an armchair, a desk, and a large bed, pushed up against the wall at the far end of the room. There were also a few cushions, with bright Gujarati mirrorwork covers, scattered on the floor, but they looked as though they had been thrown there more to fill up empty space than to be sat on: it did not look like a room where visitors were often expected.

With a formal, faintly ironic little bow May invited me to amuse myself by looking through her bookshelf while she made our dinner. Glancing through her collection of Russian novels in paperback, miniature music scores and illustrated health books, I came upon an old photograph. It was pinned, along with a dozen other scraps of paper, on to one of those large boards that I had seen hanging over many student desks in London. It was a picture of her, taken a long time ago.

While I was looking at it she darted out of her cupboard-like kitchenette to fetch something from the refrigerator. She noticed me standing in front of her board and came and stood beside me. When she saw what I was looking at she gave me a quick glance and opened her mouth to say something. But then, changing her mind, she whipped around again and went back to the kitchenette. Curious now, I followed her there and stood leaning against the wall, watching her as she bent down to look under the grill. I remarked casually that the picture must have been taken a long time ago: that was exactly how she had looked, if my memory served me right, when she had stayed with us in Calcutta.

Not quite exactly, she said, watching the grill, her voice ironically precise; it was taken at least a couple of years before that.

She looked at me, dusting her hands, raising her eyebrows as though in surprise. That was the picture, she said, a copy of which I was once privileged to send to Tridib.

Later, when we were eating our dinner, I discovered that in 1959, when he was twenty-seven and she nineteen, they had begun a long correspondence. Tridib had written first, she told me. He had always sent Mrs Price cards at Christmas, ever since they left London in 1940. But that year he had sent two, one to Mrs Price and one to her. He had inscribed a little note in her card saying that he remembered her very well, though she could not possibly remember him, that it would be a great pity if they lost touch altogether, and he hoped that some day she would find time to write to him. She was both touched and intrigued: she had already heard a great deal about him.

Smiling at the memory, she told me how his card had reached her just when she was trying to get over an adolescent crush on a schoolboy trombonist, who had had no time for her at all and had not been overly delicate about making that clear. It was nice to feel that someone wanted to befriend her. She had written back, and after that they had written to each other regularly – short, chatty letters, usually. Soon, penfriend-like, they had exchanged photographs.

I like to think that Tridib received May’s photograph the day he came to Gole Park and told us that made-up story.

Actually my grandmother was wrong about Tridib: he was nothing at all like the hardened gossip-lovers who spent most of their time hanging around the street corners at Gole Park. He was often maliciously dismissive of those people; marine mammals, he would say of them, creatures who sink to the bottom of the sea of heartbreak when they lose sight of the herd.

The truth was that, in his own way, Tridib was something of a recluse: even as a child I could tell that he was happiest in that book-lined room of his, right at the top of their old family house. It was that Tridib whom I liked best; I was a bit unsure of the Tridib of the street corners.

His niece Ila and I used to disagree about this. We talked about it once, when we were about sixteen. I was soon to leave to go to college in Delhi, I remember, and Ila and her parents had just flown in from Indonesia for a short holiday.

Soon after they arrived in Calcutta, they came to visit us. I still remember how my grandmother gasped when Ila climbed out of the car, the tasselled end of her long thick braid swinging freely in front of her. Even my grandmother, who was very critical in all matters to do with appearance, especially where Ila and her family were concerned, pinched her chin and said: Our Ila is growing into a real beauty – she’s taken after Maya.

But as for me, I was disappointed: ever since I could remember, Ila had worn clothes the like of which neither I nor anyone else I knew in Calcutta had ever seen, and here she was now, dressed in a simple white sari with a red border, like any Bethune College girl on her way to a lecture.

Soon, growing tired of our parents’ conversation, we went out, the two of us, for a walk. Involuntarily we found ourselves walking towards the lake. But when we reached it and spotted an empty bench, we both remembered how we used to sit on those benches when we were children, with our arms around each other’s waists, pretending to count the birds on the little island in the middle of the lake, and, suddenly embarrassed, we turned and hurried off towards the Lily Pool Bridge, in the distance, the awkwardness of our silence making me trip where there was nothing to trip on.

At last, because I could think of nothing else to say, I asked her whether she remembered those days when we were children and she and Robi used to come to Calcutta in the summers, and three of us used to go up to Tridib’s room whenever we were bored and listen to him, in the still, sultry heat of the afternoons, while he lay on a mat, propped up with pillows, cigarette smoke spiralling out of his fingers, and spoke to us in that soft, deep voice of his, about the behavioural differences between the Elapidae and Viperidae families of snakes, or the design of the temples at Karnak, or the origins of the catamaran. Or, for example, the time when Robi and I decided to become explorers in the Empty Quarter, and went running up to his room to ask for a few tips before setting off. He had smiled and gone on to tell us in ghastly detail about the circumcision rites of one of the desert tribes. And then, spectacles glinting, he had said: So before you leave you’d better decide whether you would care to have all that done to your little wee-wees, just in case you’re captured. I asked her if she remembered how Robi and I had spread our hands instinctively over our groins, and how angry we had been when she had laughed.

Mere vagina-envy, she said, laughing, and I tried to keep my face impassive as though I was accustomed to girls who used words like that. But I could tell she didn’t remember.

I asked her, then, if she had any memory of the stratagems we used to employ to get Tridib to tell us about the year he had spent in London, during the war; of how we used to pore over his photographs when we could persuade him to bring them out; of how he used to tell us about the people in them, pointing out Mrs Price with May in her arms, or Alan Tresawsen, her brother, with his bad arm hanging limply at his side, and her husband Snipe, who used to treat himself with Yeast-Vite tonic for his neuralgia and bile beans for his blood, Doan’s kidney pills for his backaches and Andrews Salt for his liver, Iglodine for his cuts and Mentholatum for his catarrh; Snipe, who had once sent Tridib to the chemist’s shop on West End Lane to buy him a glue called Dentesive so that his dentures would not be shaken out by the bombs.

Yes, she said nodding, mildly puzzled by my insistence, she did have a faint recollection, but she could not exactly say she remembered.

But how could you forget? I cried. She shrugged and arched her eyebrows in surprise, and said: It was a long time ago – the real question is, how do you remember?

But of course, to me it wasn’t a question at all.

I tried to tell her, but neither then nor later, though we talked about it often, did I ever succeed in explaining to her that I could not forget because Tridib had given me worlds to travel in and he had given me eyes to see them with; she, who had been travelling around the world since she was a child, could never understand what those hours in Tridib’s room had meant to me, a boy who had never been more than a few hundred miles from Calcutta. I used to listen to her talking sometimes with her father and grandfather about the cafés in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, or the crispness of the air in Cuzco, and I could see that those names, which were to me a set of magical talismans because Tridib had pointed them out to me on his tattered old Bartholomew’s Atlas, had for her a familiarity no less dull than the lake had for me and my friends; the same tired intimacy that made us stop on our way back from the park in the evening and unbutton our shorts and aim our piss through the rusty wrought-iron railings.

I began to tell her how I longed to visit Cairo, to see the world’s first pointed arch in the mosque of Ibn Tulun, and touch the stones of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. I had been talking for a while when I noticed that she wasn’t listening to me; she was following a train of thought in her mind, frowning with concentration. I watched her, waiting eagerly to hear what she would have to say. Suddenly she clicked her fingers, gave herself a satisfied nod, and said aloud, inadvertently: Oh yes, Cairo, the Ladies is way on the other side of the departure lounge.

I had a glimpse, at that moment of those names on the map as they appeared to her: a worldwide string of departure lounges, but not for that reason at all similar, but on the contrary, each of them strikingly different, distinctively individual, each with its Ladies hidden away in some yet more unexpected corner of the hall, each with its own peculiarity, like the flushes in Stockholm’s Arlanda, so sleekly discreet that she had once missed two flight calls because it had taken her so long to understand how the handle worked. I imagined her alighting on these daydream names – Addis Ababa, Algiers, Brisbane – and running around the airport to look for the Ladies, not because she wanted to go, but because those were the only fixed points in the shifting landscapes of her childhood.

When I went to London, a decade later, often when Ila suggested going out somewhere, to a film in Brixton perhaps, or to a new Vietnamese restaurant in Maida Vale, I would jump to my feet and, before I knew it, I would cry: Yes, let’s go, let’s go on the Underground. She would burst out laughing and mimic me, saying: You’d think we were going on the bloody Concorde.

To her the Underground was merely a means of shifting venue: it would irritate her to see how excited I got when we stepped on to the escalators; she would watch me as I turned to look at the advertisements flashing past us on the walls, gulped in the netherworld smell of electricity and dampness and stale deodorant, stopped to listen to the music of the buskers booming eerily through the permanent night of the passageways, and in annoyance she would tug at my elbows and hiss: Hurry, hurry, you can’t stop here, you’ll hold people up. And if I still lingered she would snap at me impatiently: For God’s sake stop carrying on like a third-world tapioca farmer – it’s just the bloody Underground.

And I would say to her: You wouldn’t understand: to you Cairo was a place to piss in.

I could not persuade her that a place does not merely exist, that it has to be invented in one’s imagination; that her practical, bustling London was no less invented than mine, neither more nor less true, only very far apart. It was not her fault that she could not understand, for as Tridib often said of her, the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places, she had never travelled at all.

All through her childhood, every time her family came back to Calcutta for a holiday, they brought back souvenirs from wherever they happened to be living at that time. Her parents would bring back all kinds of things – Indonesian leather puppets or improbable North African stools with camel-like humps. But there was only one kind of souvenir that Ila ever thought of bringing back and I was the only person to whom she would show them. We would slip away to the shade of the rusty water tanks on the roof of their house, and there, with a tight little smile, she would produce a large manila folder.

They were always the same, and in time they came to mean as much to me as they did to her: they were the Yearbooks of the International Schools of whatever city she happened to be living in at that time.

They were always full of photographs. There would be one of each student and then pages of others – of groups of friends, of parties and tennis matches, of whole classes together. For a long time I could not believe that they were really pictures of a school, because in the pictures the boys and girls were standing around all mixed up together, and besides, not one of them was in uniform. To me, the clothes they were wearing in those pictures seemed to have as little to do with school as the costumes at a circus.

Then Ila would point herself out, and there she would be, dressed in jeans or a skirt, and even, once, a Persian lambskin waistcoat. She would show me her friends, standing beside her, and I would roll their names around my tongue – Teresa Cassano, Mercedes Aguilar, Merfeth ash-Sharqawi – names of girls mainly at first, and then, as we grew older, boys too – Calouste Malekian, Cetshwayo James, Juin Nagajima – names which imprinted themselves on my memory so that years later I recognised Mercedes Aguilar at once when she turned up in a photograph two continents away from where she’d been when I had first seen her in those photographs.

Ila’s closest friends were always the most beautiful, the most talented, the most intelligent girls in the school. She would point them out to me in the pictures of picnics and fancy-dress dances. The three of us went to that together, she would say, Teresa and Merfeth and I; and we spent the whole evening talking to each other – you should have seen the boys buzzing around us – but Teresa decided that we weren’t going to dance that evening, just like that, so … And she would point Teresa and Merfeth out to me, laughing, slender girls, making faces at the camera. But somehow, though Ila could tell me everything about those parties and dances, what she said and what she did and what she wore, she herself was always unaccountably absent in the pictures.

When we were fourteen she once pointed to the picture of a boy who, to me, already looked like a grown man, with a face like an American film star, square-jawed and cleft-chinned, with long black hair that curled down to his shoulders. His name is Jamshed Tabrizi, she said, he’s a fencing champion and this year his father gave him a BMW sports car for his birthday; he can’t drive it yet because he’s not old enough, but their chauffeur brought it around to the school one day. It’s red, like lipstick, and as soon as he gets his licence, we’re going to drive down to the beach at Pattaya on Sundays; it’s just a few miles from Bangkok.

And then, in a rush, looking at me sideways, she added: He’s my boyfriend.

But a few pages later, in their class photograph, there he was, right in the foreground, in the centre of the front row, grinning, broad-shouldered, a head taller than anyone else, with his arms thrown around the shoulders of two laughing blonde girls. And before she flipped the page I caught a glimpse of Ila herself, on the edge of the back row, standing a little apart, unsmiling, in a plain grey skirt, with a book under her right arm. She saw that I had noticed, and when I came upon that Yearbook again a week later I discovered that that page had been torn out. I felt a constriction in my throat, for suddenly it seemed to me that perhaps she was not so alien, after all, to my own small, puritanical world, in which children were sent to school to learn how to cling to their gentility by proving themselves in the examination hall.

Those schools were all that mattered to Ila; the places themselves went past her in an illusory whirl of movement, like those studio screens in old films which flash past the windows of speeding cars.

I confronted her with this once, in London, when the three of us, she, Robi and I, happened to be together in a pub, the Kembles Head, on Long Acre, a short walk from Covent Garden. Robi was stopping by in London on his way to Harvard. He was on leave from his job in the Indian Administrative Service, so that he could take up a fellowship in administration and public affairs for six months. We had decided to spend the evening together.

Ila laughed when I reminded her about those Yearbooks and, picking up her glass of whisky, she said: Of course those schools mattered to me, schools are all that matter to any child, it’s only natural. It’s you who were peculiar, sitting in that poky little flat in Calcutta, dreaming about faraway places. I probably did you no end of good; at least you learnt that those cities you saw on maps were real places, not like those fairylands Tridib made up for you.

But of course, among other things, Tridib was an archaeologist; he was not interested in fairylands: the one thing he wanted to teach me, he used to say, was to use my imagination with precision.

For instance, when Ila and I were ten, her family came to Calcutta from Colombo for a holiday. Ila came with Tridib and her mother to visit us, and her mother, in her kindly way, knowing how fascinated I was by the countries they lived in, asked Ila to tell me a story about their house that she thought would interest her.

Their house was in a quiet part of Colombo where diplomats and senior civil servants and people like that lived. It was an area where sprawling bungalows with huge lawns were threaded through by lanes that were often flooded with puddles of scarlet gulmohur and yellow jacaranda. Their house was at one end of a very quiet lane. It was a big house with large verandas and a steeply sloping roof covered with mossy tiles. The garden was at the back. It seemed to stretch out from inside the house; when the French windows were open the tiled floor of the drawing room merged without a break into the lawn. It was a quiet secluded garden, with a bronze vat, taller than a child, standing like a brooding tumulus in a corner. And it had a blue-tiled lily pond in the centre, in which plump, fantailed goldfish flashed their white bellies at the sun.

There was only one problem: adjoining the garden at the back was a poultry farm. This caused Ila’s mother a good deal of worry, apart from the bother of the smell and the noise, for she had heard that snakes were certain to appear wherever there were chickens. Still, the house was surrounded by a very high wall, and when the breeze was blowing in the right direction the garden was as tranquil as a Japanese cloister.

One morning, soon after they moved in, their cook Ram Dayal came running upstairs and burst in upon Ila’s mother who was taking her mid-morning nap in an easy chair on a veranda.

Mugger-muchh, shrieked Ram Dayal. Save me, burra-mem bachao me from his crocodile.

He was a tall, willowy, usually drowsy man, but now his eyes were starting from his gaunt face and his lips were flecked with spittle.

Never heard of such a thing, Ila’s mother said to us. Crocodile in my garden; almost fell out of my easy chair.

My grandmother and I looked carefully away from each other, but ever afterwards the thought of Ila’s mother, with her rounded figure, as soft and plump as two buns squashed together in a schoolbag, falling out of her easy chair at the thought of a crocodile in her garden, was enough to reduce us to helpless laughter.

Man was in a state, she snorted. Never seen anything like it.

But now, being the woman she was, she folded her tiny hands in her lap, pushed her knot of hair back to the top of her head and sat up in her chair in the way the family had come to know so well, that characteristic pose that had earned her the nickname of Queen Victoria.

Shatup Ram Dayal, Queen Victoria snapped. Stop bukbukking like a chhokra-boy.

Dekho burra-mem, he said again, his thin voice vanishing into a screech. There it is, in the garden.

And right he was, Queen Victoria said, her voice shrill with amazement. Damn and blast, there it was – a heck of a huge great big lizard, all grey and black, nasty greatbig creature, with a little pointed head and a tongue like a bootlace, wandering about in my garden like a governor at a gymkhana.

But being, as she was, the daughter of a man who had left his village in Barisal in rags and gone on to earn a knighthood in the old Indian Civil Service, she retained her composure.

Muro-it, Ram Dayal, she cried. Catch hold of it before Ila-mem sees it, and cut its head off.

(As though it were a penis or something, Ila said to me years later.)

But Ram Dayal was knocking his head against the wall now, the whites of his eyes showing, tears zig-zagging down his cheeks. Why did I come to Lanka? he wailed. I knew Ravana would come to get me.

Shatup Ram Dayal, Queen Victoria snapped. She rang the little bronze bell she always carried to summon Lizzie, Ila’s recently arrived Sinhalese ayah.

Yes madam? Lizzie said from the doorway. She was a thin, middle-aged woman with a stern mouth and a small, wasted face, always very neatly dressed in the blouse and sari of her native Kandyan foothills.

Waving a hand with careful nonchalance, Queen Victoria said: Lizzie, at it-garden looking-looking.

The animal was sunning itself now, its grey chest raised high on stiff forelegs.

Lizzie, what it-thing being-being? Queen Victoria said.

She always spoke like that to Lizzie, though Lizzie spoke very good English and even knew a little Hindi. It was a language she had invented on the spot when Lizzie first came to them on the recommendation of a senior Sinhalese civil servant.

Lizzie looked at it and laughed.

That’s a thala-goya madam, she said. Very common here, very gentle animal.

Queen Victoria glared at the reptile.

Gentle, by Jove! she said to us. Wretched beast could have passed for a bloody tyrannosaurus.

She turned to look at Lizzie. No possible, she said, it-thing killing-killing?

Kill it? Lizzie cried, once she had decoded this. But why to kill it? They keep snakes away.

She ran downstairs, and a few minutes later they saw her go into the garden with an armful of cabbage stalks and vegetable peel. She scattered them on the grass and the animal darted forward and began to feed.

Hai, hai, hai, gasped Ram Dayal. Hai, hai, hai!

Determined not to be outdone by Lizzie, Queen Victoria stiffened her back and went out into the garden herself, taking a few vegetables with her. The animal fixed its eyes balefully upon her as soon as she stepped into the lawn. She froze. Then, drawing on her last reserves of courage, she managed to mutter to it: Eating-eating nice veggie-veggies? which was only her Lizzie-language turned inside out, but the animal’s tail seemed to flicker in answer and from that moment onwards she considered it a part of her household: she was always at ease with anything and anybody who would respond to one of her private dialects.

After that, even though many of her Sinhalese acquaintances were alarmed to find a monitor lizard on her lawn and told her stories about how they had been known to break children’s shinbones with a swipe of their tails, she allowed it the run of her garden, except, of course, when she had parties, when Lizzie was made to tie it to a tree with a length of rope.

One day, early in the morning after one of her parents’ parties, when the lawn was still dotted with cigarette stubs and half-eaten snacks, Ila went out into the garden to read. She had a book with her that she had had to put away the night before when she was only twenty pages from the end, because Lizzie had switched off the lights in her bedroom. She flopped into a deckchair beside the lily pond and in a moment she was absorbed in her book. Ten pages later, still engrossed, she heard a soft splash in the lily pond. It was a very gentle splash, no louder than the sound of a goldfish’s tail flicking the surface. But she stirred, and, not quite taking her eyes off the page, she caught a glimpse of a shadow, as slim and sinuous as a branch of oleander, stretching from the edge of the lawn, under her chair and into the pool.

Then the shadow rippled, and this time she looked up properly and saw scales glinting on a long muscular body.

She screamed, and the book dropped out of her hands. It hit the edge of her chair and tumbled off, and she heard a dull, fleshy thud as it struck scales and muscle.

The whole length of the snake’s body flashed past under the chair with an angry rustle, and then, somewhere behind her, she heard a slow prolonged hiss. She turned, slowly, stiffly, in the way one has to when one knows that one’s lungs are suddenly empty and one’s muscles have gone rigid with fear.

The snake’s head was about a foot from her back. Its body lay curled, in tight regular coils, flat on the earth, while its head had reared up, higher than the back of the chair. She was whimpering now, trying to call out, but at the same time, looking at the snake’s head, she saw it more clearly than she’d ever seen anything before, with the telescopic clarity of absolute concentration. She could see its tiny eyes, the flaring nostrils at the end of the sharply pointed head, the tongue, no longer flickering, drawn into the soft pink mouth in readiness, the fangs, erect now, and dripping.

Then she heard another sound at the far end of the garden and dimly, without turning her head, she saw the thala-goya thrashing at the end of its rope, battering the tree it was tied to with its tail. The snake heard it too, and it hesitated for a moment with its body arched. Its eyes settled upon Ila again and its neck bent still further back till it was like a drawn bow. Then its head flashed forward.

At that moment, reflexively, Ila turned her body, a very small movement, but enough to overbalance the chair. She fell, the chair tumbled over with her, and the snake’s fangs glanced off its steel legs.

It reared back again like a snapping whiplash. Ila tried to push herself up, but her hands slipped and she fell back. And then, with all the suddenness of a knot springing undone, the coiled snake dropped its head on the grass and shot away towards the wall. She looked up to see the thala-goya lumbering after it. It had bitten through the rope. But the snake was quicker and it had slithered over the wall long before the thala-goya could cross the lawn.

So, young chap, Queen Victoria said, patting my head, her eyes twinkling. What do you make of that?

I glanced instinctively towards Tridib. He was looking at me, eyes narrowed, head cocked. I was nervous now: I could see that he was waiting to hear what I’d have to say, and I didn’t want to disappoint him. My mother and grandmother were exclaiming with horror about the snake, asking Queen Victoria how big it was, whether it was poisonous or not. Taking my cue from them, I chose a safe course: hoping to earn Tridib’s approval by showing him how well I remembered everything he told us, I asked Queen Victoria whether the snake was of the species Boidae or Elapidae.

Queen Victoria goggled at me and mumbled something to the effect of: Well that’s a bit of an uppercut, young chap; I don’t think I could tell you in a month of Sundays.

While she was mumbling I stole a glance at Tridib. He had pursed his lips and was shaking his head in disappointment. I sat out the rest of their visit in crestfallen silence.

On the stairs, when I was going down to see them off, while Ila and her mother lingered over their goodbyes, Tridib said to me casually that, if one thought about it, there was nothing really very interesting about snakes – after all, if I saw one in the lake, for example, what would I do? I’d come back home and tell everyone, but in a few minutes I’d forget about it and get back to my homework: the snake would have nothing whatever to do with my real life.

I did not particularly care for the suggestion that my homework was my real life, but I kept quiet anyway: I could see he was leading up to something else.

When we had almost reached the ground floor, he said: Did you notice that Ila’s house had a sloping roof?

I shook my head: the detail had escaped me. I could not see that it had any relevance at all to the story. He must have seen the puzzlement on my face, for he put his hands on my shoulders, turned me around and asked me whether I could imagine what it would be like to live under a sloping roof – no place to fly kites, nowhere to hide when one wanted to sulk, nowhere to shout across to one’s friends.

He got into the car, stuck his hand out through the window and gave me a punch on my chest, leaving me more puzzled than ever.

But later that evening, and for many evenings afterwards, while I sat under my grandmother’s watchful eyes, pretending to do my homework, I puzzled over what Tridib had said, and in a while I began to imagine the sloping roofs of Colombo for myself: the pattern they made if one wheeled in the sky above them, how sharply they rose if one looked at them from below, the mossiness of their tiles when one saw them close up, from a first-floor window, and soon I felt that I too could see how much more interesting they were than the snake and the lizard, in the very ordinariness of their difference.

And still, I knew that the sights Tridib saw in his imagination were infinitely more detailed, more precise than anything I would ever see. He said to me once that one could never know anything except through desire, real desire, which was not the same thing as greed or lust; a pure, painful and primitive desire, a longing for everything that was not in oneself, a torment of the flesh, that carried one beyond the limits of one’s mind to other times and other places, and even, if one was lucky, to a place where there was no border between oneself and one’s image in the mirror.

I listened to him bewildered, wondering whether I would ever know anything at all, for I was not sure whether I would ever experience desire of that kind.

What could I say of this to Ila as she sipped her whisky in the Kembles Head? Ila lived so intensely in the present that she would not have believed that there really were people like Tridib, who could experience the world as concretely in their imaginations as she did through her senses, more so if anything, since to them those experiences were permanently available in their memories, whereas with her, when she spoke of her last lover’s legs, the words had nothing to do with an excitement stored in her senses, but were just a string of words that she would remember while they sounded funny and then forget as completely as she had the lover and his legs.

For Ila the current was the real: it was as though she lived in a present which was like an airlock in a canal, shut away from the tidewaters of the past and the future by steel floodgates.

Once, a couple of days after I arrived in London, she took me to Covent Garden to see the sights. We met at the tube station and she led me eagerly into the vast, steel-roofed piazza and took me around the used-clothes stalls and the vegetable market. But she must have seen that I was bored, for she soon decided that she had had enough of showing me around, and stalked off across the paved square, and disappeared into one of the roads that leads to Charing Cross.

Hurrying after her to make amends, I happened to look up and spotted a window with a sign painted on it. I sprinted down the road, caught up with her, brought her back and showed her the sign.

It says Victor Gollancz, she said. So what?

In answer I took her arm and led her through the door. There was an office inside with a wooden counter at one end and a few cabinets full of books along the walls. An elderly woman was sitting behind the counter, looking at me nervously over the top of her spectacles.

Can I help you at all? she said.

Could you tell me, please, I said, whether this is where the Left Book Club used to be, before the war?

Oh dear, she said, don’t know about that, I wasn’t here then. Would you like me to ring the director?

I shook my head, thanked her and led Ila out again. She was indignant now, as well as surprised. What’s the matter with you? she said.

So, as we stood outside on the pavement, I tried to recall for her how Tridib had told us that Alan Tresawsen, Mrs Price’s brother, had worked there before the war, in the Left Book Club; that it must have been right there, perhaps even in that office which we had just entered, for the Club had been a part of Victor Gollancz’s publishing house …

Ila looked at the window again, with mild interest, shrugged, and said: Looks like any musty old office now, doesn’t it?

To me it didn’t, for having seen it first through Tridib’s eyes, its past seemed concurrent with its present. But I did not say so: instead I looked at Ila, at her finely planed, high-cheekboned face, her long, brown eyes, and her shining black hair, curling down to her shoulders, and she felt my gaze on her and, smiling, thrust her arm through mine and led me off to a Chinese café she knew in Neal Street.

And so, as always, it was Ila – Ila of whom it was said, when we were children, that she and I were so alike that I could have been her twin – it was that very Ila who baffled me yet again with the mystery of difference.

While the pub filled up with young bankers wearing pin-striped suits and diamond earrings, and publishers’ secretaries with purple-streaked hair, I tried to tell Ila and Robi about the archaeological Tridib, the Tridib who was much more contemptuous of fairylands than she would ever be; the Tridib who had pushed me to imagine the roofs of Colombo for myself, the Tridib who had said that we could not see without inventing what we saw, so at least we could try to do it properly. And then, because she shrugged dismissively and said: Why? Why should we try, why not just take the world as it is? I told her how he had said that we had to try because the alternative wasn’t blankness – it only meant that if we didn’t try ourselves, we would never be free of other people’s inventions.

But I am free, she said laughing.

You’re lucky, I answered. I’m not: at least in London.

Why? she asked, draining her whisky. Because of the Raj?

I began to laugh. And then, because I knew she had forgotten, I tried to recall for her how, when we were eight-year-old children, she herself had once invented London for me.

Ila’s family came to Calcutta for Durga Puja that year, because after many years her grandparents were going to be there too, just in time for the festival. Ila’s father was on sabbatical leave from his job with the UN at the time. He was spending the year teaching in a university in the north of England. He had been glad to accept when the university invited him to be visiting professor in their newly founded institute of development studies. Ila and her mother had looked forward to it too, but once they arrived they ran into a problem they hadn’t allowed for: the rooms Ila’s father had been given weren’t big enough for a whole family. In any case, Queen Victoria was not at all enthusiastic about living in that cold northern town. What would she do all day long, she said, in that grey place, surrounded by terrifying teddy boys and belching factories? She would much rather be in London. But then, where would they live in London and where would Ila go to school?

They were in a quandary when Mrs Price stepped in, in a way to which their family had by then become accustomed. They could be her lodgers in London, she had suggested, and go up to visit on weekends. She would be glad to have people in the house: it was two years since Snipe had died but the house still felt empty, and it would be emptier still now that May had decided to move out. And as for school, they would be able to work something out – there were many schools near by.

So that was where Queen Victoria and Ila were living when they came to Calcutta for that holiday – in Mrs Price’s house in West Hampstead. Mrs Price had even arranged for Ila to go to school with her son.

They flew into Calcutta a few days before the festival began. Soon after they arrived Queen Victoria rang my mother and invited all of us, my parents, my grandmother and I, to drive out with them to visit their old family house in Raibajar.

My mother was delighted. She loved to go on long drives, and at that time, when the minor success my father was to achieve as an executive in the rubber industry was still a little while away, he was working too hard to go anywhere on weekends. In fact, since we did not have a car, and money was too tight to pay for holidays, we never went anywhere.

When my mother went to ask my grandmother whether we could go, her eyes were sparkling, and as she went up to the desk at which my grandmother was correcting her schoolbooks, she pinched my nose and whispered in my ear, very softly, so that my grandmother would not hear her: Picnic, picnic.

But my grandmother, when she was asked, frowned over the top of her spectacles and told my mother sharply that she ought to have known that Queen Victoria only wanted us along so that Ila would have someone to play with; that we weren’t beggars yet to grab at everything she held out to us.

I could gauge my mother’s disappointment from the way her fingers dug into my shoulder. There’s nothing wrong with going on a drive with them, she blurted out, and then, confronted with my grandmother’s glare, fell into a resentful silence.

Then I went up to my grandmother’s desk and spoke to her, and instead of pleading I reminded her how my father had taken Ila to the zoo with me the year before and of how many times she herself had fed Queen Victoria with the very best ilish from the Gariahat fish market. At that she relented, as I had known she would, because she talked to me more than she did to anyone else and so I knew something of the fears she had accumulated in the long years after my grandfather’s premature death, when she had had to take her schoolteaching job in order to educate my father: I could guess at a little of what it had cost her then to refuse her rich sister’s help and of the wealth of pride it had earned her, and I knew intuitively that all that had kept her from agreeing at once was her fear of accepting anything from anyone that she could not return in exact measure.

Early in the morning, two days later, the four of us, my parents, my grandmother and I, walked down to Gole Park where they had arranged to meet us. It was the day before Shoshti, a perfect Puja day, with the clear October sunlight lying golden in the galis; the air cool, free at last of the damp summer heat. We looked into the back lanes as we walked, exclaiming over the bright pandals and awnings – some not yet finished and others with the images installed and their loudspeakers already humming.

We waited outside the Ramakrishna Mission building and watched the pavements near the sweet-shops being washed and then dirtied again by the crowds hurrying to get to Gariahat while the fish and the vegetables were still fresh. Then I spotted their old Studebaker making its stately way down Gariahat Road towards us. As the prospect of seeing Ila again became suddenly imminent, I could not keep still any more. There they are, I cried, jumping up and down, pointing. There, look, look.

I can see Maya, my grandmother said, following my finger. But where’s the Shaheb?

My grandmother had called her brother-in-law, Mayadebi’s husband, the Shaheb, ever since she heard his mother saying of him once, very proudly, that her son was so Europeanised that his hat wouldn’t come off his head. She even called him that when she was speaking to him directly. This never ceased to upset my father, who was always careful to speak of him to his colleagues as: My meshomoshai, His Excellency, the Indian Consul-General in Sofia (or wherever he happened to be), Shri Himangshushekhar Datta-Chaudhuri.

There he is, my grandmother said drily. In the back seat, all by himself, leaning back with his pipe, as though he were setting out on a state visit. I wonder which of his uniforms he’s wearing today.

It was my grandmother’s theory that the Shaheb’s wardrobe was divided into sets of hangers, each with its own label: Calcutta zamindar, Indian diplomat, English gentleman, would-be Nehru, South Club tennis player, Non-Aligned Statesman, and so on. It was certainly true that there was always a rigorous completeness about the Shaheb’s appearance: in Calcutta the fall of his dhoti was always perfect – straight and starched – the top button of his kurta open in an exact equilateral triangle; in Lagos the pockets of his safari suits were never too obtrusive; his suits, when he wore them, looked as though they had been moulded on to him by the lost-wax process – whatever he wore, there was always a drilled precision about his clothes which seemed to suggest that he was not so much wearing them as putting them on parade. He looks like a dressed-up doll in a shop window, my grandmother used to say. No wonder everyone stares at him.

But that was not fair, for people would have stared at him anyway because of the extraordinary, indeed startling, distinction of his appearance. He was tall and slim, with a long, regular face, a sweeping nose, lustrous, melancholy eyes, and a lot of straight hair that was greying discreetly at the sides, like gunmetal in a frost. Wherever he went, heads turned towards him like spotlights following a model.

Look, look, my grandmother whispered in my ear as the car drew up to the pavement. He’s got a new one today.

When the car drew up, we saw that he was wearing a pale green corduroy jacket with a silk cravat.

Then Mayadebi jumped out and she and my grandmother hurried towards each other and embraced, laughing, and talking quickly in that language that none of us could understand properly, their old Dhaka dialect. After I had touched Mayadebi’s feet I looked up and saw they were holding hands over my head, like schoolgirls, smiling with their lips pressed together, full of merriment, in exactly the same way, as though there was a mirror between them.

But of course, Robi remarked, drawing patterns on the table with his beer, the fact was they hadn’t looked at all like each other; they were completely different. He cocked his head, looked me over and shook his head: he couldn’t see any sign of her in me either, he said, wrinkling his nose. Then he laughed and flicked a bit of foam at me off the top of his glass.

Why, he said, I looked much more like her than you ever did.

I could not argue with that: even my grandmother had always said so. She would put a finger on Robi’s strong rounded chin and say: You get that from me; that’s mine. It was because of that resemblance perhaps that she had always loved him best of Mayadebi’s three sons. She would look at him and marvel at how he was always half a head taller than anyone else of his age, at the strength in his long, sinewy legs. She would press her thumb against the muscles in his forearms, already hardened at the age of nine by all the games he played, and she would say: You’re strong, don’t ever forget that, you’re strong. Then she would turn to me and say: Watch Robi, he’s strong, he’s not like the rest of you in this country.

Once, when Robi could not have been very much older than twelve, my grandmother received a letter from Mayadebi which said, or rather hinted, that Robi had got into trouble in the boarding school in north India to which he had recently been sent, and that she, Mayadebi, was thinking of flying back to take him out of the school. My grandmother was worried enough to send a message to Tridib, asking him to come to our flat; she thought he would be able to tell her what had happened.

When Tridib turned up at our flat a week later, he merely shrugged when she asked him what had happened, and said that it was nothing at all: Robi had got himself into a bit of trouble because he’d beaten up an older boy who was a notorious bully and who’d chosen to pick on one of Robi’s friends – a boy who couldn’t defend himself because he had a club foot. He’d beaten up the bully so badly that he had had to spend two days in hospital.

So were the teachers upset? my grandmother asked. Had they written to Mayadebi?

Tridib laughed and said, no, it wasn’t anything like that. The teachers were probably not wholly displeased, and they certainly hadn’t written to Mayadebi. And as for the boys, Robi had become a hero amongst them over night. But Mayadebi had got to hear of the incident somehow and she had worked herself into a terrible panic.

Why? my grandmother asked in astonishment. What was she worried about?

She was worried because Robi had chosen to fight him at all, Tridib said. She thought that he’d change; that he’d become like the boy he’d beaten. She didn’t think he was strong enough or old enough to resist taking his place.

My grandmother’s mouth tightened into a thin line. Of course Robi had to fight him, she said with a dismissive flick of her fingers. What else could he have done? Maya ought to be proud of him. I’m proud of him; but then, he’s like me, not like Maya.

She was silent for a while, leaning back in her chair, with her hands folded in her lap. Then, gazing absently at the wall, she said: It doesn’t surprise me. Maya was always a fool in some ways. Even when we were students.

And then, her voice slow and dreamy with the effort of recollection, she told us about a boy who had been in college with her in Dhaka, decades ago, in the early twenties.

He was a shy, quiet boy, with a wispy little beard, who lived in the lane next to theirs in Dhaka’s Potua-tuli. He always sat as far back as possible in the lecture room and since he never said anything nobody took much notice of him.

Then one morning, when they were half-way through a lecture, a party of policemen arrived, led by an English officer, and surrounded the lecture room. Their lecturer tried to protest, but he was silenced by the policeman. As for the rest of them, they sat there whispering, excited, but subdued too, for they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves.

Weren’t you frightened? I asked.

A little, she said, fingering the thin gold chain she always wore around her neck. But not very much; we were quite used to police raids in those days. There were raids all the time in the colleges and the university. We’d grown up with it.

For a brief moment I thought she was joking.

Why? I said. What had you done?

So then, because she was rolling her eyes and evidently didn’t know where to begin, Tridib, who had been listening intently, told me a little about the terrorist movement amongst nationalists in Bengal in the first few decades of this century: about secret terrorist societies like Anushilan and Jugantar and all their offshoots, their clandestine networks, and the home-made bombs with which they tried to assassinate British officials and policemen; and a little about the arrests, deportations and executions with which the British had retaliated. My grandmother sat perched on the edge of her chair while he was talking, as fragile as a porcelain bird, smiling at the growing astonishment on my face as I tried to fit her into that extraordinary history.

When he had finished she went on with her story.

After their lecturer had been sent away, the English officer drew his pistol and looked over the room, carefully comparing the faces in front of him with that on a piece of paper that he was holding in his hand. He went about it slowly, painstakingly, while they sat there, sweating under his gaze. After he had been at it for what seemed like hours, he gave a thin little smile, and his eyes came to rest on someone at the back of the room. They all turned to look, and at once a sigh of collective astonishment whistled through the room.

It was the shy, bearded boy: he was standing now, his face impassive, his back erect, his gaze fixed on the policeman, clear, direct and challenging. He seemed absolutely unmoved, but watching him carefully she saw him drumming on his thigh for a brief moment with one of his fingers, and she knew then that he was frightened, more frightened perhaps than she would ever be. But neither then nor later, when they handcuffed him and led him out of the room, did he betray his fear again or allow his gaze to drop from the officer’s face.

She scratched my head gently, and looking up, I saw her drawing her knuckles across moist eyes.

When I look at Robi, she said, I always think that if he’d been there he’d have stood there like that too, with his head erect, unflinching.

She laughed throatily, patting my head. But I’m not so sure about you, she said.

But the boy, Tridib wanted to know; what had happened to him?

They had heard afterwards that he had been a member of one of the secret terrorist societies since he was fourteen. He’d been exercising with them in their gymnasium, learning to use pistols and make bombs, smuggling messages and running errands. A few months before he was arrested he had finally been initiated into the society. The first mission they had given him was to assassinate an English magistrate in Khulna district. All his preparations were ready; he was to leave for Khulna at the end of that week. But the police found out – their network of informers was legendary. The boy was tried and later deported to the infamous Cellular Gaol in the Andaman Islands.

After that, whenever she and Mayadebi were walking past the gali in which the boy had lived, she would point it out and tell her the story.

And do you know? she said, laughing. Maya would be frightened every time, and she would hold on to my hand and hurry me past the gali.

What about you? said Tridib. What did you think?

I used to dream of him, she said softly. For years afterwards I would lie in bed and conjure up his face, complete with that absurd, stringy little beard of his.

She was fascinated, long before that incident, by the stories she had heard about the terrorists: about the heroism of Khudiram Bose and the sad death of Bagha Jatin, hunted down on the banks of the Buribalam river, betrayed by treacherous villagers who had been bought with English money. Ever since she heard those stories she had wanted to do something for the terrorists, work for them in a small way, steal a little bit of their glory for herself. She would have been content to run errands for them, to cook their food, wash their clothes, anything. But, of course, they worked secretly; she didn’t know how to get in touch with them, and even if she had it would have been twice as hard for her to get in, because she was a girl, a woman. She often speculated about some of the people she knew: maybe he’s one of them, should I ask, or hint, or will he turn out to be an informer for the police? And of course, when he finally turned up, she hadn’t recognised him. She’d been expecting a huge man with burning eyes and a lion’s mane of a beard, and there he was, all the while, at the back of her class, sitting shyly by himself. She could so easily have talked to him. He would have been handsome too, she had decided later, if only he would shave that beard of his. Lying in her bed, she would think to herself – if only she had known, if only she had been working with him, she would have warned him somehow, she would have saved him, she would have gone to Khulna with him too, and stood at his side, with a pistol in her hands, waiting for that English magistrate …

I gazed in awed disbelief at the delicate outline of her face, at the polished silver of her hair, and the filigreed tracery of veins on her cheek.

Do you really mean, Tha’mma, I said, that you would have killed him?

She put her hands on my shoulders and, holding me in front of her, looked directly at me, her eyes steady, forthright, unwavering.

I would have been frightened, she said. But I would have prayed for strength, and God willing, yes, I would have killed him. It was for our freedom: I would have done anything to be free.

Robi and I sized each other up, he lounging languidly against the Studebaker, dressed in long trousers, and I, all too acutely aware of the shortness of my be-shorted legs. The Shaheb climbed out of the great blue car and greeted my grandmother with a smile, bending forward from the waist in a kind of abbreviated bow. My grandmother gave him a quick nod, pausing in her conversation with Mayadebi only to raise herself on tiptoe and sniff absentmindedly at his face. He pretended not to notice, but later my father scolded my grandmother and said she shouldn’t have sniffed at him like that, in front of everybody; did she think he hadn’t understood that she’d been trying to find out whether he’d been drinking? He had: he’d frowned when she did that bit of sniffing and tiptoeing.

And no wonder, my grandmother told him tartly, because he had been drinking: his breath was steaming like turpentine – at nine in the morning!

But I couldn’t smell anything, my mother said.

The Shaheb had won my mother’s heart that day: having recently seen a picture of him in a newspaper in which he was standing behind the Foreign Minister’s chair at a negotiating table, she had come to believe that the kindly and avuncular man she remembered was now in a position of such power and importance that his mind could not but be permanently preoccupied with matters of state. Thinking herself to be ignorant of such weighty things, she had long been in secret dread at the thought of speaking to him. And sure enough, after she had touched his feet, he had peered at her and cleared his throat in a statesmanlike way, exactly as she had feared, but just when she was all but trembling with fright at the thought of having to offer an opinion on some tangled issue in international politics, he had patted her on the back, and in his beautiful Calcutta voice, rich with pipe smoke and whisky, he had said: I hope you aren’t having any trouble getting eggs in the market?

When she had answered as best she could, he had gone on to ask whether the price of vegetables had gone up since he was last in Calcutta and whether kerosene was still as difficult to get as it used to be.

My mother was touched that so important and distinguished a man should take so keen an interest in such trivial and unlikely matters, but she was a little puzzled too, for though the questions had been asked with every semblance of interest, they had followed so quickly upon each other that they had seemed almost practised – and yet she could not imagine any circumstance in which a man like him could have practised them, since she could not bring herself to think that the ministers with whom she believed him to spend his time were much interested in small-talk about the price of eggs and the availability of kerosene. As for my father, he was mystified by the Shaheb’s conversation with my mother. He had long admired the Shaheb to the point of adulation – partly because he was our only important relative, but mainly because the kind of elegance and dignity to which the bosses of the rubber industry fruitlessly aspired came to him so effortlessly. And in that image of well-groomed distinction there was no place for this sudden interest in eggs and vegetables and other matters domestic.

The mystery was not solved till some years later, when my father in the course of a business trip to Africa happened to spend a few days with Mayadebi and the Shaheb in Conakry. There at an embassy dinner he overheard the Shaheb conducting precisely the same conversation, merely substituting mutton for eggs, with the wives of two third secretaries successively.

Those are the right things to say to a Mrs Third Secretary, he explained to my father on the way home. They’re new to the business, you see, and it keeps their morale up: they like to know that H.E. himself takes an interest in their little difficulties.

So you see, my father explained to my mother when he came back from his trip to Africa; that day when we went to their house in Raibajar he had given me parity with a third secretary.

In fact, during my father’s visit to Conakry, his rather sudden professional success had proved to be something of a problem for the Shaheb: he had his own promotion scheme for the world, and my father had not risen very far within it. So, in the beginning, his conversations with my father were oddly disjointed, until one evening, upon being asked a series of long and very detailed questions about the government’s export policy, my father had realised that the Shaheb had finally resolved the question of precedence by raising him to the rank of First Secretary (Commercial).

By the time my mother had finished talking to the Shaheb I was beside myself with worry. I tugged at her sari and shouted, demanding to know where Ila was, hadn’t she promised me that she’d be coming too? She shook her head helplessly, so I ran over to Ila’s father and asked him why Ila hadn’t come yet, wasn’t she coming? He gripped my shoulder, shook his head and said, no, he was sorry, but he’d left her behind in London, she wasn’t coming.

I had seen the wink he had shot my father, but I was struck dumb with disappointment all the same: with people of his age, the worst was the natural thing to believe. But Mayadebi heard him too, and she must have noticed that I was near tears for she led me away and told me not to worry, I’d be seeing Ila in a minute, she was following in the other car, with her mother and Tridib, and of course, Lizzie-missy, and Nityananda, their family cook …

And then there it was, the new grey Ambassador the Shaheb had bought for his sons’ use, on the far side of the roundabout, with Ila leaning out of the window, her long hair streaming out in the wind. I burrowed into my grandmother’s sari, suddenly terrified at the thought of meeting her again.

Why, you silly boy, my grandmother said. There she is, there’s Ila; weren’t you waiting for her?

Tridib brought the car to a dramatic halt and they climbed out slowly: Queen Victoria, so portly now that we gasped; Tridib himself, who flashed me our secret Inca salute before disappearing around the corner for a cigarette; Lizzie-missy, who had been living in their house in Calcutta while they were away in London; Nityananda, the cook, who had been with the Shaheb and Mayadebi for fifteen years, who came to attention now, staring into the middle distance, mindful of what he’d been taught when he was in the army.

But Ila stayed in the car, looking out of the window at the bird-shitted statue in the centre of Gole Park.

Suddenly, all together, everyone remembered her.

I can’t see Ila, Mayadebi said.

Probably asleep somewhere, said my grandmother.

Probably sulking, said Robi.

God, she must be big now, said my mother.

Not big enough, said Queen Victoria. Doesn’t eat a thing, my poor baby.

Big enough for an automatic watch, said her father. Gave her a gold Omega for her eighth birthday.

But where is she? asked Mayadebi.

Oh my goodness, Lizzie, Lizzie, Queen Victoria roared. Ila-mem at once here fetching-fetching. Where she being-being?

Lizzie-missy went to the car and we heard her thin voice scolding. After a while Ila climbed out, very slowly, and stood leaning against the door of the car, rubbing her eyes with her fists. When she looked up, her eyes met mine and we stared at each other across the breadth of our assembled family.

She was wearing clothes the like of which I had never seen before, English clothes, a white smock with an appliqué giraffe that had its hooves resting on the hem while its neck stretched almost as far up as her chin.

It couldn’t have been that one, Ila said loudly, her voice echoing on the dark shop windows of Long Acre as we walked towards the lights of Soho. She laughed and, thinking tipsily hard, said no, it couldn’t have been, she hadn’t got that one till much later. And Robi, tapping her on the back, reminded me that she had had trunks full of dresses, it could have been any of a thousand.

But I do remember. I can see her in it. I can still hear the starch that Lizzie-missy had washed into it, I can see the creases left by her iron, I can feel the gauzy texture of the cloth, I can smell the faint milky smell of the baby’s talcum powder that Lizzie-missy has poured over her, I can even see the patch of white it has left on her neck and the two rivulets of sweat that have wound their way through it.

Why are you staring at her like that? my mother said. Go and talk to her.

At that I shrank even further back.

I don’t know what the matter with him is, my mother said, complaining loudly, to everyone. He’s been waiting for her for days. He asks about her every night: where’s Ila? when is she coming? He won’t go to sleep at night until I tell him, she’s coming soon, don’t worry …

Now listen to that, said Queen Victoria, looking at me fondly. What a sweet little man. Do you hear that, Ila? He asks about you every day.

Ila smiled and turned her head away with a tiny shrug.

I knew then, for certain, that she had not asked about me as I had about her.

At that moment I hated my mother. For the first time in my life she had betrayed me. She had given me away, she had made public, then and for ever, the inequality of our needs; she had given Ila the knowledge of her power and she had left me defenceless, naked in the face of that unthinkable, adult truth: that need is not transitive, that one may need without oneself being needed.

To stop them saying any more I ran over to the car and jumped in.

You can sit in front, Ila said; with Tridib-kaku and Nityananda. I’m going to sleep.

We drove away soon. I sat between Nityananda and Tridib in the front seat, while Ila, her mother and Lizzie-missy dozed at the back. It took us much longer than usual to drive through the city: cars have no privilege on the roads at that time of the year; the streets are overwhelmed by the festivities. We had to inch forward near Gariahat, with Nityananda and Tridib hanging out of the windows, begging shoppers to make way. Near Sealdah it took us almost half an hour to skirt around a pandal that was jutting out from the pavement, right into the middle of the street. The car got hotter and hotter and Tridib began to shout curses at everything that crossed our path, his wire-rimmed glasses glinting in the sunlight, dwarfing his waspish, angular face. The traffic came to a virtual standstill again near Dakshineshwar. We crawled along till we reached the bridge, and then looked down in awe, from our height, at the vast crowds circulating in the courtyard of the temple below, like floodwaters sweeping through a garden. But once we had crossed the bridge the traffic grew thinner, and soon we were speeding along the Grand Trunk Road. Then Tridib relaxed a little and leant back, smelling as he always did of fresh cigarette smoke and soap. I asked him a few questions but he seemed abstracted and wouldn’t say much, so soon I dozed off too.

When I woke up, Nityananda was shaking my arm excitedly, crying: Wake up, wake up, there it is, there’s the house, look, look.

It appeared suddenly on the edge of the windscreen: a bright yellow patch on a gentle knoll, rising like a cake out of that table-like plain. In a few minutes we reached an arched gateway that had outhouses on either side of it. The cars slowed down a little, and as we were overtaken by the cloud of dust that had been following us, children swarmed out of the outhouses and ran along with the car, waving and shouting. The house had vanished behind a forest that stretched all the way up the knoll, the trees growing so thick and close together that they hid the house like a curtain. Tridib, grinning, told me to take a good look, for I wouldn’t see trees like those again for a long time: his grandfather had wanted to live in a tropical rain-forest so he’d imported those trees from Brazil and the Congo.

Then Nityananda nudged me, pointing to the left, and turning I saw a troop of monkeys hanging on the vines, staring down at us, somersaulting in alarm. The car turned a corner, still climbing steeply, and suddenly the house was in front of us: newly whitewashed and plastered, shining golden in the mid-morning sunlight, a festoon of flapping saris hanging wetly from the roof, a row of columns stretching across the portico in a broad, gap-toothed smile.

The paved terrace in front of the house was already buzzing when the cars drew up. The durwans who looked after the house had lit two fires from which thin feathers of smoke were now rising into the sky. Their wives had settled down in the shade of the portico, surrounded by mounds of vegetables. In readiness for Nityananda, huge brass pots had been set out on the terrace.

We were surrounded as soon as we got out of the car. Ila vanished into a knot of people, all eager to examine and exclaim over the only grandchild of the house. She let them fuss over her for a while, then suddenly she broke free of them, snatched at my hand and dragged me across the paved terrace. Come on, she whispered urgently, let’s hide.

I shot a glance back, over my shoulder. They’re running after us, I shouted. What’ll we do now?

Just follow me, she panted, vaulting up the plinth of the portico. We dodged through the columns into a vast, musty hall. Stumbling into it, blinded by the gloom, we bumped into each other, and then tripped and fell on a flight of cold marble stairs. Narrowing my eyes, I tried to see where they led. But I could only see a few feet ahead, and beyond that the stairs vanished into darkness. I could hear the durwans and the children racing across the courtyard now, shouting to each other.

It’s too dark up there, I whispered to Ila. Where shall we hide? They’re almost here.

She gestured at me impatiently to be quiet. She was looking around the hall, hesitating as though she had forgotten her way around the house. I pushed her, urging her on, my belly churning with a breathless hide-and-seek excitement.

Shut up, she snapped, pushing me back. And just when I was about to make a dash for a dim, high door on the far side of the hall, she cried: Come on, I remember now! and began to feel her way around the staircase. I followed her until we came to a low wooden door, hidden away behind the stairs. She found a knob and gave it a tug. The door creaked but showed no sign of coming open.

Come on, pull, she said to me breathlessly. Aren’t you good for anything?

I could hear feet thudding on the portico now. I caught hold of the knob and we pulled together, as hard as we could. The door creaked and a gust of musty air blew into our faces. We pulled harder still and the door opened, no more than a few inches wide, but enough for us to squeeze through. We slipped in and managed to push the door shut. A moment later we heard them pouring into the hall.

We tumbled down a couple of steps to a stone floor and lay there panting. We could hear them scattering in the hall now, some running up the staircase, some looking in the corners, shouting excitedly to each other. Ila smiled gleefully and squeezed my hand.

You watch, she said, none of them will think of looking in here.

For a while all I could see was a pale green glow filtering in through a window, set so high up in the wall that it seemed like a skylight. Its small rectangle of glass was mildewed over on the outside by grass and moss.

Look! I said to Ila. There’s grass growing on that window.

Yes, she said. The window’s on the ground. If you want to look in here you have to lie flat on your stomach.

But then, I said in amazement, this room must be under the ground.

Yes, of course, she said. You fool: couldn’t you tell?

I shivered. I had never been underground before: as far as I knew only the underworld lay below the ground. I looked around and the cavernous room seemed suddenly full of indistinct shapes, murky green in that strangely aquatic light, like the looming heads of rock in a picture that Tridib had once shown me, of the cave of a moray eel.

What are these things in here? I said. Why does this place smell like this?

We could hear Lizzie-missy shouting for Ila in the hall.

Let’s go back, I said. We’ve been here long enough.

Ila clapped a hand over my mouth. Shut up, she whispered angrily; you can’t go, now that I’ve brought you here.

Queen Victoria was shouting too, scolding Lizzie-missy: Why you let her running-running? Tridib was arguing with her: Let them be, they’re just playing somewhere … Their voices drew away slowly and we knew that they had gone outside, back to the terrace.

I don’t like this place, I whispered to Ila. I don’t want to stay here.

Coward, she said. Aren’t you meant to be a boy? Look at me: I’m not scared. It’s just some old furniture covered up with sheets. That’s all.

But what are we going to do in here? I said. It’s so dark …

I know what we can do, she said, clapping her hands together. We can play a game.

A game! I cried, peering at the grey-green shapes rising out of the darkness. What kind of game can we play in a place like this?

I’ll show you, she said. It’s a nice game, many boys like it.

But there’s no room in here, I protested. And I can’t see very far.

She sprang up. I know where we can play, she said. I just hope it’s still there.

I followed her as she picked her way through the looming shrouded shapes, stumbling in the darkness, raising little storms of dust. She led me to the far end of the room where it was so dark I could hardly tell where she was.

Yes, she cried in triumph, pointing at a vast, sheet-covered mound. It is still here. Help me pull off the sheet, come on.

I caught hold of one end of the sheet and she of another. We tugged, but instead of coming off, the sheet seemed to atomise in our hands, and for a moment everything vanished into a cyclone of dust.

I can still see it, taking shape slowly within that cloud of dust.

Like a magician’s rabbit, laughed Ila.

Nothing as simple as that, said Robi wryly. No, at least a castle on a misty mountain top.

But in my memory I see it emerging out of that storm of dust like a plateau in a desert.

It was a table, the largest I had ever seen; it seemed to stretch on and on. I used to wonder later whether this was merely a legacy of a child’s foreshortened vision: an effect of that difference in perspective which causes all objects recalled from childhood to undergo an illusory enlargement of scale. But three years later, when I took May, a fully grown 24-year-old adult, into that room and showed her the table, even she gasped.

Heavens! she said. It’s huge: what could it possibly have been used for?

Tridib once told me all about it. My grandfather bought it on his first visit to London, he said, some time in the 1890s. He saw it at an exhibition in the Crystal Palace and couldn’t resist it. He had it shipped to Calcutta in sections, but when it arrived he didn’t know what to do with it so he had it put away here. And so it was forgotten until you rediscovered it.

May walked around it, frowning. I wonder how much he paid for it, she said, running her thumb along the grain of the dark, heavy wood.

I wonder how much it cost to have it shipped here, she said loudly, her voice echoing in the shadows of the room. I wonder how many proper roofs that money would have bought for those huts we saw on our way here.

The indignation in her voice stabbed accusingly at me. I don’t know, I said, lowering my head.

She tapped on the wood with her knuckles. Why did he bring this back, for God’s sake? she cried. Why this worthless bit of England; why something so utterly useless?

She was biting her lip in bewilderment now, shaking her head.

I could think of no answer to give her: it seemed impossible to me to think of that table as an object like any other, with a price and a provenance, for I had seen it taking shape with my own eyes, within a cloud of dust, in that very room.

All right, said Ila, let’s go under it.

Under it? Aghast, I tugged at the back of her smock and asked her what kind of game we could possibly play under it.

Come, she said; she was already on her knees crawling through the dust. Come on, I’ll show you. It’s the game I play with Nick.

Nick? I said, suddenly alert. Who’s Nick?

Don’t you know Nick? she said, and turning to look back at me, over her shoulder, she said: Nick’s Mrs Price’s son, May’s brother. We live in their house in London. He and I walk to school together in the morning and come back together in the afternoon, and then afterwards, every evening, we go down together to play in the cellar.

She reached for my hand and tried to pull me down. Come on, she said. I’ll show you: it’s a game called Houses.

No, I said, shaking my head, confused by the questions that were now stirring in my head.

This Nick, I found myself asking her. How big is he?

Oh he’s big, she said, perching on the footrest. He’s very big. Much bigger than you: much stronger, too. He’s twelve, three years older than us.

I squatted beside her on the dusty floor, thinking.

What does he look like? I asked presently.

She screwed up her face and thought hard. He has yellow hair, she said after a while. It always falls over his eyes.

Why? I said. Doesn’t he comb it?

He does comb it, she said. But it still falls over his eyes.

It must be long like a girl’s.

No, it’s not a bit like a girl’s.

Then why is it so long?

It is not so long, she said. It’s just very straight, and when he runs or something it falls over his eyes. He can even touch it with his tongue sometimes.

I spat on the floor in disgust. We watched the spit turning into a tiny pool of foaming mud.

He must be filthy, I said. Eating his own hair.

You’re just jealous, Ila said grinning, because your own hair is so short. Nick looks sweet when his hair falls over his eyes: everyone says so.

After that day Nick Price, whom I had never seen, and would, as far as I knew, never see, became a spectral presence beside me in my looking glass; growing with me, but always bigger and better, and in some ways more desirable – I did not know what, except that it was so in Ila’s eyes and therefore true. I would look into the glass and there he would be, growing, always faster, always a head taller than me, with hair on his arms and chest and crotch while mine were still pitifully bare. And yet if I tried to look into the face of that ghostly presence, to see its nose, its teeth, its ears, there was never anything there, it had no features, no form; I would shut my eyes and try to see its face, but all I would see was a shock of yellow hair tumbling over a pair of bright blue eyes. And as for what he did, what he said, what he thought about, in the three years between the moment when Ila first told me about him and that day when I took May down to that underground room, I knew nothing at all about him except one little snippet of a story that my father told me about him once, soon after returning from a trip to England.

My father had telephoned Mrs Price soon after he arrived in London, just in case Ila and Queen Victoria were still there. It turned out that they had left long ago, but Mrs Price insisted that he come to tea with her anyway. He went, and when Mrs Price led him into her drawing room, he found Nick there too, dressed in his school uniform but with his tie hanging loose around his neck. He shook hands with my father and sat down quietly in an armchair in a corner. My father could not help being impressed: he had never seen such a definite air of self-possession in a child of thirteen.

For a while my father and Mrs Price chatted about Mayadebi and the Shaheb (who were in Romania and had invited her to visit them there), about May, who was away at the festival in Bayreuth, and Tridib. Mrs Price remembered, laughing, that Tridib had once decided that he wanted to be an air-raid warden when he grew up. So then my father turned to Nick, for he hadn’t said a word yet, and asked him whether he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.

Nick tipped back his head, with a little smile, as though he were surprised that anyone should ask, and said, yes, of course he knew, he’d known for years; he wanted to be like his grandfather, grandfather Tresawsen, whose picture was hanging over there, above the mantelpiece.

To my intense disappointment, my father could tell me nothing about Nick’s grandfather, except that in the picture he had had a square face, white hair and a walrus moustache.

So, as always, it fell to Tridib to tell me, sitting on the grass in the Gole Park roundabout one evening, how Mrs Price’s father, Lionel Tresawsen, had left the farm where he’d been born – in a village called Mabe, in southern Cornwall – and gone off to a nearby town to work in a tin mine; how he’d gone on from there – for no matter that he had very little education, he had deft hands, a quick mind and a great deal of ambition – to become the overseer of a tin mine in Malaysia; and then further and further on, all around the world – Fiji, Bolivia, the Guinea Coast, Ceylon – working in mines or warehouses or plantations or whatever came his way; how finally he had surfaced in Calcutta, making his living by working as an agent in a company which dealt in steel tubes, and then, later, gone on to make, if not exactly a fortune, certainly a respectable sum of money, by starting a small factory of his own, in Barrackpore. It was then, prosperous at last, in his middle age, that he married. His wife was the widow of a Welsh missionary doctor, and she bore him two children, Elisabeth and Alan. When Elisabeth was twelve and Alan ten, she made her husband sell his factory and move back to England: she was determined that her children would have all the advantages of a proper education, university and all. And so they went back and settled in the bucolic tranquillity of a small Buckinghamshire village.

But in fact there was much more to Lionel Tresawsen than money, steel tubes and children. In his youth, for example, he had been a prolific inventor. After he died, his wife discovered that in the period of five years when he was living in Malaysia he had taken out no less than twenty-five patents – for gadgets ranging from mechanical shoe-horns to stirrup-pumps for draining water out of flooded mines.

He had given up inventing in disgust when manufacturers had proved strangely indifferent to his inventions. And then there was the Lionel Tresawsen of middle-age, who had tried to set up a homeopathic hospital in a village near Calcutta; and the almost-old Lionel, who had developed an interest in spiritualism and begun to attend the meetings of the Theosophical Society in Calcutta, where he met and earned the trust and friendship of a number of leading nationalists. This had, of course, estranged him and his wife from most circles of British society in the city and led to innumerable colourful slights and insults at clubs and tea parties, but that had made very little difference to Lionel Tresawsen, since those people had never been particularly pleasant to him anyway. He had also begun to attend seances conducted by a Russian medium, a large lady who had married an Italian who ran a restaurant in Chowringhee. It was at those offices that he met Tridib’s grandfather, Mr Justice Chandrashekhar Datta-Chaudhuri, who liked indulging in matters spiritual when the High Court was not in session: their friendship was sealed across innumerable planchette tables while waiting for the large lady to summon her favourite spirit, the all-seeing astral body of Ivan the Terrible.

Listening to Tridib that evening, I thought I understood what Nick had meant when he had said to my father, with such untroubled certainty, that yes, of course he knew what he wanted to do, he wanted to travel around the world like Lionel Tresawsen, to live in faraway places half-way around the globe, to walk through the streets of La Paz and Cairo. At that moment, looking up at the smoggy night sky above Gole Park, wondering how the stars looked in London, I thought I had found at last the kindred spirit whom I had never been able to discover among my friends.

I couldn’t hold my questions back any more after I had shown

May the footrest under the immense table, where Ila had been sitting when she first introduced me to Nick Price. Is his hair really yellow? I cried. And does it really fall over his eyes?

May gave this a bit of thought and said, no, yellow was not quite the word she would use, it was sort of straw-coloured hair, but yes, it did fall over his eyes.

And what was he like? I found myself asking her. Did he like school, and what was he going to do afterwards?

I was being clever. I didn’t want her to know that I already knew.

She found an upturned chair, righted it, and sat down. Oh, he’s a very grown-up little boy, she said. He knows exactly what he’s going to do after school.


He’s going to join a firm of chartered accountants, and once they’ve trained him he’s going to get a nice job with a huge salary preferably abroad, not in England. England’s gone down the drain, he says. It can’t afford to pay anyone properly except old-age pensioners.

What’s a chartered accountant? I said.

She smiled and wiped the back of her hand across his face, leaving a dark smudge on her cheek.

I don’t know, she said, with a snort of laughter. I think they have big books full of numbers on which they make little marks with red pencils.

I steadied myself against her chair. But May, I said, doesn’t he want to travel – like your grandfather …?

Oh, travel doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, she said. She gave me a long speculative look, narrowing her eyes, and said: I wonder whether you’d like him.

Of course I’d like him, I cried. I like him already.

You don’t know him, she said. He’s not at all like us, you know.

What do you mean ‘us’? I said.

Not much like me, she said. Nor like our parents, or Tridib, or you, or anyone …

She stood up, dusted her shirt and said, under her breath, to herself, as though in reproof: But all the same he’s a dear old chap.

I hope I’ll meet him some day, I said.

I’m sure you will, she said, smiling. I wonder what you’ll have to say to him when you do?

I met him seventeen years later, in London.

The day before Robi was to leave for Boston, Ila arranged to take the two of us to meet Mrs Price. I was delighted: I had been planning to visit her ever since I arrived in London, four weeks before, but somehow I had not quite picked up the courage to go on my own.

Ila and Robi met me at the Indian Students’ Hostel in Bloomsbury where I was staying temporarily. They arrived late in the afternoon when I was in the dining hall, drinking tea and eating dum aloo and puris, while listening to a bearded student leader from Allahabad who was campaigning to be elected president of the hostel union.

The moment I saw Ila coming through the door, I could tell from her pursed lips and shining eyes that she was nursing a secret. But when I asked her what it was, on the way to the Goodge Street tube station, she shook her head and hurried on ahead of us.

It was not till the red sign of the Mornington Crescent tube station had flashed past my window like a palmed card that Ila sprang her surprise.

Do you know who’s going to be waiting for us at the station when we get there? she said.

May? said Robi.

No, not May, said Ila. May’s away touring with her orchestra.

Then who? Go on, tell us.

Nick, she said, her eyes shining. Nick Price. I haven’t seen him in, it must be all of ten years. He was a pimply youth of nineteen then, and I was a buck-toothed belle with braces.

But I thought he was away in Kuwait, said Robi. Getting rich, doing chartered accountancy or whatever.

He was, said Ila. He’s been away for a very long time. But he came back unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago – I don’t know why. Mrs Price didn’t talk about it much.

She looked out at the black walls of the tunnel, smiling to herself.

I’ll tell you what, she said presently. After we’ve been to see Mrs Price, I’ll treat you two to dinner at my favourite Indian restaurant – it’s a small Bangladeshi place in Clapham. You’ll like it. We can ask Nick too – maybe he’d like to come.

I knew him the moment I saw him. He was at the far end of the platform, standing under a ‘Way Out’ sign. He was wearing a blue suit, a striped institutional tie and a dark overcoat. He looked very tall and broad to me at first, just as I had imagined him. But when he and Robi met half-way and shook hands, I saw that I was wrong, that my eyes had been deceived by the distorted perspectives of the long, straight lines of the platform: I saw that most of his breadth lay in the thickness of his overcoat and that his head reached no higher up Robi’s shoulder than did mine.

When he turned to Ila, and stuck out his hand, I wondered whether he looked older than he ought because his face had been burnt and coarsened by the desert sun. But it wasn’t that: it was because of a premature, slightly suspicious gravity that made him wrinkle up his eyes appraisingly when he talked, like a banker who has seen too many good debts turn bad.

Ila laughed, looking at his outstretched hand, and raising herself on tiptoe she flung her arms around his neck and kissed him, full on the mouth. The blood rushed to his face and he laughed too, awkwardly, and his face suddenly unwrinkled, and throwing his arms around her he hugged her to his chest, and then, when he was kissing her, I saw that his hair had fallen over his eyes in exactly the way Ila had described on that long-ago October morning.

So, when he walked up to me, flicking his straw-coloured hair back, and said: How nice to meet you, I’ve heard so much about you from my mother and May and everyone … what could I say? I said: I’m not meeting you for the first time; I’ve grown up with you.

He was taken aback.

That must have taken some doing, he said drily, since I grew up right here, in boring suburban old West Hampstead.

I’ve known the streets around here for a long time too, I said.

And then I began to show off.

When we came out of the tube station I stopped them and pointed down the road. Since this is West End Lane, I said, that must be Sumatra Road over there. So that corner must be where the air-raid shelter was, the same one that Robi’s mother and your mother and your uncle Alan ducked into on their way back from Mill Lane, when one of those huge, high-calibre bombs exploded on Solent Road, around the corner, blowing up most of the houses there. And that house, that one, just down the road, over there, on the corner of Lymington Road, I know what it’s called: it’s called Lymington Mansions, and an incendiary bomb fell on it, and burned down two floors. That was on the first of October 1940, two days before your uncle died.

Nick Price inclined his head at me, in polite incredulity. He turned to Ila and they walked on ahead, cutting me short. Robi fell into step beside me and, jabbing me in the ribs, told me not to bullshit; didn’t I know that the Germans hadn’t developed high-calibre bombs till much later in the war? In 1940 they simply hadn’t possessed a bomb that was powerful enough to knock down a whole street.

But that’s what happened, I said.

How do you know? Robi said.

Because Tridib told me.

How was he to know? He was just a kid, nine years old. Every little bomb probably seemed like an earthquake to him.

Look, I said, that’s what happened.

OK, Robi said. Since you’re so sure, let’s go and take a look at that road of yours and see what it’s like now.

All right, I said. I called out to Nick and Ila: We’re going over there to take a look at Solent Road, where the bomb fell.

Ila made an impatient face. You and your silly bombs, she said. We’re late already; hurry up. We’ll wait for you at the corner.

Solent Road’s over there, said Nick, laughing. Do tell us if you find it all bombed out.

He did not have to tell me where it was. I knew already, for the map was in my head: down Sumatra Road, fourth turning to the right.

Here we are, said Robi, when we got there. That’s your bombed-out road.

It was a short road, lined with trees and hedges on either side. The trees were a pale honey-green – the colour of English greenery – but gentler still now, gilded by the steep afternoon sunlight. The red brick houses were all exactly the same, on both sides of the road: with sharply pointed tiled roofs and white window frames and doorways, each with its own patch of garden hidden behind a hedge. There were rows of small cars parked on either side of the road. Right beside us was a small blue Citroën with a sticker on the windshield which said: Save the Whales. On the back seat there was a pile of oddly shaped green bottles and next to them a kind of plastic bucket strapped to the seat.

I found myself suddenly absorbed in the trappings of the lives that went with that car.

Are those wine bottles? I asked Robi.

No, you fool, he laughed. Those are mineral water bottles.

And that; what’s that? I asked, pointing to the plastic bucket.

That’s a seat for a baby, he said impatiently. Haven’t you seen one before? It’s to keep a baby safe inside a car.

I could not take my eyes off the Citroën.

Enough of that bloody car, said Robi. Take a look at your bombed-out Solent Road now.

I looked up at the quiet, pretty houses on that tranquil road. I caught his eye and we both burst into laughter.

Not exactly what you had expected, Robi said.

I did not tell him then, but he was wrong.

I had not expected to see what Tridib had seen. Of course not. I had not expected to see rubble sloping down from burnt-out houses like scree in a mountain quarry, with a miraculously undamaged bathtub balanced precariously at the top; nor had I expected to find the road barricaded by policemen while the men from the Heavy Rescue Service tried to dig beneath the rubble for the lost pensioner. I had known that I would not see uprooted trees or splintered windows or buckled flagstones: I had expected nothing of all that, knowing it to be lost in a forty-year-old past.

But despite that, I still could not believe in the truth of what I did see: the gold-green trees, the old lady walking her Pekinese, the children who darted out of a house and ran to the postbox at the corner, their cries hanging like thistles in the autumn air. I could see all of that, and yet, despite the clear testimony of my eyes, it seemed to me still that Tridib had shown me something truer about Solent Road a long time ago in Calcutta, something I could not have seen had I waited at that corner for years – just as one may watch a tree for months and yet know nothing at all about it if one happens to miss that one week when it bursts into bloom.

I wanted to know England not as I saw her, but in her finest hour – every place chooses its own, and to me it did not seem an accident that England had chosen hers in a war.

Nick and Ila were waiting for us where we had left them, at the corner where Sumatra Road joined West End Lane. Nick was talking and he did not notice us.

One can’t really like Kuwait, we heard him say. There’s nothing to do there except drink and watch video films. I’m quite relieved to be back.

So have you got yourself a new job? Ila asked.

Oh, I’ll start looking around soon, he said. It shouldn’t be a problem; I have a lot of experience.

He stopped to run his fingers through his hair.

You may say what you like about Kuwait, he said. But there’s serious money to be made out there. Really serious money. Nothing like the chickenfeed I’d get working for some tuppenny company in the Midlands.

Then he saw us and exclaimed: Ah, there you are. So did you find your bombed-out road?

He found it all right, said Robi. But instead of the remains of some dreadful battlefield, all he got to see was a little old lady with a blue rinse, out walking her Pekinese.

But still, said Nick, you did find your way there. Now would you like to have a go at finding your way to 44 Lymington Road?

I could try, I said.

Go ahead then.

It was easy enough on the A to Z street atlas of London that my father had brought me. I knew page 43, square 2, by heart: Lymington Road ought to have been right across the road from where we were. But now that we had reached the place I knew best, I was suddenly uncertain. The road opposite us was lined with terraces of cheerfully grimy red-brick houses, stretching all the way down the length of the road. The houses were not as high or as angular as I had expected.

But still, as far as I could tell that was where Lymington Road should have been, so I pointed to it and asked whether that was it.

Yes! said Nick. Good boy: got it first time.

We crossed West End Lane at a zebra crossing and I went ahead of the others, absorbed in taking in the details of the woodwork over the doorways, the angles of the bow windows that jutted out into the little patches of garden, the patterns of the wrought-iron gates. Then I caught a glimpse of a cricket field in the distance and at once I knew where number 44 was. I shouted to the others, pointing at the house. They smiled to see me so excited and when they caught up with me Nick burst into laughter.

Well, he said, following my pointing finger, you’re positively a mystic from the east. You’ve done it again.

When we reached the house, I leaned over the hedge to look into the garden before Nick could unlatch the little gate. The cherry tree in the garden was much taller than I had expected.

The front door opened when we were half-way down the path that led through the little patch of garden. Mrs Price had seen us coming; she stood framed in the doorway. She was a small woman, very thin and stooped with age. Her face was small too, but she had large, prominent eyes, like May’s. She had a tight wreath of silver curls, and a short-sighted, slightly worried frown was etched into the lines of her forehead. She was wearing a severe military-green skirt, a white blouse and a grey cardigan. I had seen many pictures of her, but they had not prepared me for the transparent, almost translucent quality of her complexion: even at a distance, I could see an intricate circuitry of veins filigreed on her skin.

She met us half-way up the path and kissed Ila, and shook hands with Robi and me. She was glad, she said to me, that we had met at last, it was such a pity May was away, she would very much have liked to meet me, she spoke so often of the kindness my family had shown her in Calcutta …

Nick, hugely amused, told her how I had shown them the way to the house, and how I had known that they had a cherry tree.

I’ve heard so much about it, you see, I said awkwardly. I was embarrassed now.

Well, said Mrs Price, smiling, we must give you a guided tour, but come and have a glass of sherry first.

She led us into the hall, showed me where to hang my coat, and ushered us into a large, sunny room.

Well, here we are, she said, turning to a tray that had a decanter and several glasses on it. And what will you have to drink?

She had to repeat herself twice before I heard her; I was absorbed in looking around the room.

Tridib had once shown me pictures of that room.

Soon after he and his parents went to stay at 44 Lymington Road in 1939, Mrs Price invited her brother Alan and the three friends with whom he shared a house in Brick Lane to come to tea with her. The Shaheb was still on his feet at the time; he was to have his operation a month later. He had recently bought a camera, and that afternoon he took a number of pictures.

There is something strikingly different about the quality of the photographs of that time. It has nothing to do with age or colour, or the feel of the paper. May remarked on it at once when Tridib took the two of us up to his room and opened his old scrapbook.

It’s nothing to do with fading or anything, she said, pointing at a picture of, her parents. It has to do with the way the camera looked at people then.

In modern family photographs the camera pretends to circulate like a friend, clicking its shutters at those moments when its subjects have disarranged themselves to present to it those postures which they like to think of as informal. But in the pictures of that time the camera is still a public and alien eye faced with which people feel bound either to challenge the intrusion by striking postures of defiant hilarity, or else to compose their faces and straighten their shoulders, not always formally, but usually with just that hint of stiffness which is enough to suggest a public face.

For example, in the foreground of one of those pictures, there is a large, shallow pit. Snipe has been digging that pit for the last two weeks in the back garden. This pit is intended to be the foundation of an Anderson air-raid shelter, his second line of defence against the expected German bombs. It is a serious pit therefore. But in the picture it looks anything but that; it looks like a dishevelled flowerbed. It was probably as some kind of joke that they decided to stand beside it; one of Tresawsen’s friends must have thought of it. Perhaps moments before the picture was taken they were doubled up with laughter, looking down at this pathetic would-be shelter. But now that the camera is upon them only one of them is laughing, defying the lens. The rest have composed their faces.

Snipe is at the far left of the group. He is dressed in a crumpled corduroy jacket and a woollen tie that is somewhat askew. He is not a big man, but he has broad shoulders which he does not carry well. He is stooping slightly, his head inclined towards the camera, so that the light has fallen on the bald patch on his crown. He looks a great deal older than everyone else in the photograph, which of course he is, but not so much as he looks. He is holding a spade in his hands, perhaps in an attempt to enter into the spirit of the joke. But the spade looks comic in his hands in a way he has not intended. It is evident from the gingerly way in which he is holding it that it is an unfamiliar instrument in his hands: he is cradling it like a baby. He is unmistakably an academic. For the moment, however, he has temporarily left his job as a lecturer in Middle English at a Hampstead college, and has been assigned to the Ministry of Food ‘for the duration’.

On Snipe’s right a tall, pale young man with a very thin face is squinting at the camera through very thick spectacles. This is Dan. He is wearing a cloth cap and a faded Fair Isle sweater, and he has a long scarf draped around his neck. A rolled-up newspaper is sticking out of the pocket of his jacket.

That newspaper was the first thing Tridib noticed when Mrs Price introduced him to Dan. He could not resist standing on tiptoe when Dan was being introduced to Mayadebi, and picking it out of his pocket. Mayadebi noticed and spoke to him sharply, under her breath. Dan heard her. His pale face turned flaming red, and, stammering with embarrassment, he said something like: Oh, it’s just a paper, he’s welcome to it. He fished it out of his pocket and held it out to Tridib.

Tridib gave it a long look and asked whether it was the News Chronicle. Dan shook his head apologetically, turning redder still. So then, Tridib asked, if it wasn’t the News Chronicle, which one was it?

Tridib often ran down to West End Lane to buy papers for his father, so he was already familiar with those he had seen on the newsagents’ racks. His favourites were the Sphere and Picture Post, but he liked the News Chronicle too, especially the pictures.

It’s the Daily Worker, Dan told him, and Tridib lost interest and handed the paper back to him. He had neither heard of nor seen any paper called that. Why didn’t he read the Sphere instead? he asked Dan.

He did, Dan told him, he read it sometimes, though not often. And as for the Daily Worker, he didn’t read it at all; he just happened to work for it.

Tridib could not help being impressed, for even though he had never heard of it, it was evidently a paper, printed, like every other paper, and with a few pictures too. He stepped back, looked Dan up and down, and asked whether he really, seriously meant that he wrote for that paper. He hadn’t met anyone before who wrote in a paper.

Yes, Dan told him, scratching his head, he did. So then, naturally, Tridib asked him what he wrote about, and Dan scratched his head again and made a long face and told him that he wrote about trade unions and strikes and things like that.

It embarrassed Tridib to admit that he hadn’t heard of so many things, all on the same evening, but he was curious, so in the end he abandoned his pride and said: What is a trade union?

At that Dan squatted beside him, his head level with Tridib’s, and thought very hard, for quite a long time. But before Dan could answer, Mrs Price took Tridib away and handed him a plate with a piece of cake on it. Afterwards he heard her saying to Dan, with a conspiratorial smile: He’s always asking these horribly difficult questions – and he was proud of himself for the rest of the evening, for having asked a question clever enough to have posed a problem for a man who wrote in a paper.

Long afterwards Tridib discovered that Dan had once been a figure of some prominence on the Trotskyist Left. He was the son of an eminent Cambridge physicist who had done a degree in chemistry, and then gone on to study at the London School of Economics. After that he had worked as a journalist for a while, on a number of left-wing papers, but soon he had gone off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He had earned an honourable wound, gone back to England and helped in the writing of a couple of widely read pamphlets, mainly on Nazism. There was never any doubt in Tridib’s mind that Dan was Tresawsen’s political mentor.

In the photograph, a young man is lying stretched out at their feet, with his head propped up on his hand, laughing defiantly at the camera. He has a pudgy face with prominent cheeks and curly hair, the kind of face that goes with a stocky, rounded body. His bent elbow is resting heavily on one of Tresawsen’s shoes, but Tresawsen is ignoring it. This is Mike.

When they arrived, Mike was drunk in a good-naturedly boisterous kind of way. His eyes were bleary and his cheeks pink; to Tridib he smelt of stale beer, like the draughts that blew out of the doors of pubs on the Finchley Road. He was bundled up in a dishevelled trenchcoat and a grimy cloth cap. Tridib had found it hard to understand him when he talked; Mrs Price had explained to him later that that was because Mike had a strong Irish accent.

Mike had taken an immediate dislike to the Shaheb. He had leered at the Shaheb’s tweed jacket and striped tie while they were being introduced, and then, swaying exaggeratedly on his feet, he had said: So where’s you from then?

The Shaheb, flustered, straightened his tie and said: I’m Indian.

Mike shut one bleary eye and looked him up and down. You don’t look much of an Indian to me, he said. Killed any Englishmen yet?

The Shaheb retreated a step in horror, shaking his head. Tridib began to giggle.

So what makes you Indian then? said Mike, advancing a step.

Then Tresawsen stepped between them and led him away.

Tresawsen himself is in the centre of the photograph. He is standing very straight, and since he is tall anyway, he towers over everybody else. He has a long face, with direct, deep-set eyes. There are sharp lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes and lips. He is only twenty-eight, but here he looks as though he has already reached that indeterminate age which could lie anywhere between the beginning and the end of middle age. The right sleeve of his jacket is hanging at his side in a way that makes it very hard to tell that there is anything wrong with his arm. But in fact the bones of that arm are made mainly of metal and he cannot use it except in a very rudimentary way. He has always claimed that he injured himself in a motorcycle accident. But Mrs Price doesn’t quite believe him, or rather, she thinks there was more to it.

The first she ever heard of it was when she received a letter from France, telling her that he had had an accident and was in hospital in Verdun, that he had hurt his arm very badly, but that she was not to worry, because the doctors had said he would be all right. The letter was signed Francesca Halévy, and a figure seven in the date had been crossed in the waist. She didn’t know what to think. She had thought him to be in Stuttgart, teaching English, but she’d read that they had had trouble there, and now here he was on the other side of the border, and what’s more, in a town whose name had the most dreadful associations for everybody of her generation, lying in a hospital, being looked after, presumably, by a woman who sounded both Jewish and German. But when she wrote offering to go herself, her correspondent replied by return of post to say that it wasn’t necessary, she was looking after Alan herself, and he would soon be well.

But when he came back to England, a month later, he looked anything but well. She had wanted him to stay with her in Hampstead for a while so that she would be able to nurse him herself, but he’d only stayed a week before moving out to Brick Lane. She had asked him once what had happened, and he’d given her an oddly evasive, self-deprecating kind of answer, muttering something about running his motorcycle off the road at night. Mrs Price, now stricken with guilt for not having gone to visit him in France, had felt that she had lost the right to press him for a proper answer.

But still, to her relief, he seemed cheerful when she met him again. His friends had introduced him to somebody called Victor Gollancz, he told her, a publisher who ran a club called the Left Book Club. He’d been offered a job helping to edit the Club’s newsletter, he said.

He was still working with the Left Book Club when that picture was taken, at their office in Henrietta Street, off Covent Garden. But when the war began and the Club’s offices moved to Berkshire, he resigned and stayed on in London, earning a little money occasionally by writing for the Tribune and the Observer, and helping out sometimes at the Socialist Bookshop on St Bride’s Street, near Holborn.

Francesca Halévy is standing between Dan and Tresawsen. She is slim and tall, with dark hair and a wonderfully sad, aquiline face. One of her arms is lying on Dan’s shoulders, while she has arched the other, dancer-like, over her head. She is dressed in a long, black skirt and a narrow-waisted jacket. Mayadebi and Mrs Price, standing on the edges of the group, are both looking at her intently, awestruck by her elegance.

Mrs Price has often speculated about Francesca to Mayadebi: she knows that Francesca shares that house in Brick Lane with the three men. But the trouble, as she puts it, is that she doesn’t know which of them exactly Francesca shares it with. It ought, by rights, to be Alan, she thinks, because she is convinced now that Alan injured himself in trying to smuggle her out of Germany. But at the same time Francesca seems to be very familiar with Mike: Mrs Price has actually seen her once, tucking in his shirt, in public. Mrs Price doesn’t really like Francesca, though she tries hard – she is altogether too elegant, too brilliant, too worldly … She can’t help hoping that her brother won’t, isn’t …

There is another picture of them, taken in the drawing room. This is Tridib’s favourite. It is a shadowy, indistinct picture, taken in the failing evening light, on a very long exposure. They are bunched around a large armchair. A part of the drawing room is visible behind them. It seems a very large, bare room; there is little furniture in it and nothing at all on the walls. The door at the other end, which opens out into the back garden, is visible, but it is no more than a dark smudge, blacked out with a heavy curtain.

Francesca is sitting in the chair and Mike and Dan are perched on its arms. All three of them have moved, and their faces are a blur on the photograph. They are laughing – perhaps at the Shaheb’s insistence on taking pictures of them. Mrs Price and Mayadebi are standing behind the armchair, with Alan Tresawsen in between, towering above them. Mrs Price has May in her arms, a tiny white bundle, and she is looking down at her, smiling proudly, her hair tied up on top of her head in a swirl of blonde pigtails.

Tresawsen is looking down from his great height at Mayadebi; he looks gentle and perplexed.

A few minutes before this picture was taken Tresawsen and Mayadebi spoke to each other for the first time. They hadn’t exchanged a word all evening, so they were both a little awkward when they found themselves standing next to each other, for the picture. At length, clearing his throat, Tresawsen had remarked: You’ve chosen an unfortunate time to come to England, haven’t you? It must be worrying to be stranded so far away from home with a war looming ahead.

Yes, Mayadebi had replied, I am worried, but for my son and husband. It wasn’t a matter of choice, but if it were I couldn’t have chosen any better time to come to England myself.

He was taken aback: Why?

Well, she said, laughing, the couple of months she had spent in London had been so exciting – the atmosphere had changed so dramatically, even within the last few weeks. People were becoming friendlier; in the shops, on the streets, she couldn‘t help noticing. Everyone was so much nicer now; often when she and Tridib were out walking people would pat him on the head and stop to have a little chat with her; the shopkeepers would ask her how her husband was, and when he was to have his operation. But it wasn’t just her – everyone was being friendly with everyone else; why, just that morning his sister, Elisabeth, had said that old Mrs Dunbar who lived down the road had actually been civil for the first time in living memory …

Yes, he said, that’s true – there’s a kind of exhilaration in the air.

Yes, that’s the right word, said Mayadebi: exhilaration. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been able to watch England coming alive. I wouldn’t have seen that if I hadn’t been here now.

Tresawsen laughed. People don’t believe me, he said, but it’s the same over there – in Germany – though of course in a much more grotesque way. It was odd coming back here – like stepping through a looking glass.

It was then that the Shaheb clicked his shutter. Mayadebi is looking up at Tresawsen, smiling shyly; her sari has slipped off her head. Although she is as old as Tresawsen and the mother of two children besides, she looks half his age: clear-eyed, innocent and luminously beautiful.

This is Tridib’s favourite picture: he loves the quizzical, faintly perplexed look on Tresawsen’s face; he loves the way Mayadebi smiles as she looks up at him. When he makes up stories about his hero, Tresawsen, they always end with him looking like that and Mayadebi smiling up at him.

I have one final image of Tridib on that evening: he is standing by the window, watching through parted curtains as Tresawsen and his friends walk down Lymington Road on their way back to Brick Lane. It is late now, and the gentle late-summer twilight is darkening into night. The lamps on the street light up as they step out of the house. Caught in that sudden glow of light, Mike rocks back on his heels with the balanced agility of a practised boxer, and throws a flurry of quick short punches at Tresawsen. But Tresawsen is quick too, and he sways easily away from Mike’s fists, drawing him off balance, and then his left arm shoots out and catches Mike square in the middle of his chest. Mike is brought up short, winded, his arms sag and drop, and he makes a face and lets his tongue loll out. Then they all throw their arms around each other’s shoulders, and Francesca tucks her hand into Dan’s and they walk off down the street in a tight little phalanx singing so loudly that Mrs Price’s neighbours part their curtains.

Tridib could see them quite clearly, years later, walking down that road in the creeping darkness, holding tightly on to each other. But he knew that the clarity of that image in his mind was merely the seductive clarity of ignorance; an illusion of knowledge created by a deceptive weight of remembered detail. He knew, for example, that they were on their way to their house in Brick Lane, that they would turn left at the end of Lymington Road, towards the West Hampstead station. But of the world they were going to, that house in Brick Lane, he knew nothing; nothing at all of the web of trust and affections and small jealousies that must have held it together. In one part of his mind that house figured as a bright, pure world, a world built on belief, but in another he knew that to be real it must have had room in it somewhere for petty, tawdry little jealousies. It would drive him to despair that he could not guess where that tawdriness lay: did it lie, for example, in unwashed bathtubs, in arguments over who was to pay for the sugar that week, or in quarrels over who was to share whose bedroom? Whatever it was, at that moment, walking down Lymington Road, with their arms clasped around each other, they were exactly one week away from the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact, after which nothing in their house would ever be the same again. Which was the more real, their dirty bathtubs and shared bedrooms or that other reality, waiting one week away? Most of all he would despair because he could not imagine what it would be like to confront the most real of their realities: that within two years three of the four of them would be dead. The realities of the bombs and torpedoes and the dying was easy enough to imagine – mere events, after all, recorded in thousands of films and photographs and comic books. But not that other infinitely more important reality: the fact that they knew, that even walking down that street, that evening, they knew what was coming – not the details, nor the timing perhaps, but they knew, all four of them, that their world, and in all probability they themselves, would not survive the war. What is the colour of that knowledge? Nobody knows, nobody can ever know, not even in memory, because there are moments in time that are not knowable: nobody can ever know what it was like to be young and intelligent in the summer of 1939 in London or Berlin.

And in the meanwhile, there they are, in that gilded summer, laughing and singing on their way back to Brick Lane.

The room Mrs Price led me into was large and airy, and it teemed with furniture – sofas, delicate spindly chairs and armchairs with tall curved backs, a chaise-longue, little tables with spidery legs. Every available surface was crowded with things: tall blue Chinese vases, little porcelain plates with gold rims and floral designs, bowls filled to the brim with rose petals, ormolu clocks and silver-framed photographs. The walls were quilted over with arrays of water-colours, woodcuts and botanical drawings. Mrs Price saw me looking around in astonishment, and said, guiltily, as though explaining away a vice, that she was a church-sale addict, that the things in that room were only a small fraction of a lifetime’s collection.

Ila said: Well, at least the room’s a surprise, isn’t it?

Yes it was, I told her, a real surprise, and then Nick, smiling, asked me if I thought I could find my way around the house as I had through the streets.

I had to think a bit to orient myself. I turned to face the door and said: Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I go out of this door and turn right and keep walking straight for a few paces, that would take me to the kitchen, wouldn’t it? And if I were to turn right before I reached the kitchen, wouldn’t I come upon a flight of stairs that would lead me down to the cellar if I were to go down them?

It was my turn to laugh now, at their astonished faces.

It’s incredible, Ila sighed, shaking her head. How does he do it?

And all the while, of course, it was she herself who had shown me.

She had taken my hand and pulled me under the table, and when I was sitting beside her, she had drawn a line in the dust and said: Now remember, that’s the road outside, and that, over there, is where they play cricket.

Then, boxing off a small dusty square, she said: That’s the garden, and that’s the cherry tree, and there’s the front door, and after you’ve rung the bell and wiped your feet on the door mat you can come in.

She drew a long narrow rectangle, pointing inwards from the door.

That, she said, is the hall.

She added another large square to the left.

That’s the drawing room, she said. It looks out into the garden, through the big windows, like this, and you can go through this door, into the dining room, and through that again into the kitchen, right back over there. And then there’s the kitchen garden out at the back.

While I was staring at this dusty chequerboard of lines, she crawled around me, to my right, and drew another room, a smaller one this time.

That’s the bedroom where Ma and I live, she said. It’s right next to the hall.

She added a couple of lines to it and said: That’s the cellar, and that’s the staircase. That’s where Nick and I play Houses sometimes.

Why do you play down there? I said. Why don’t you play under a table, like this?

It’s the same thing, she said. This table is like a cellar anyway.

Doesn’t anybody know you go down there? I said. Don’t they stop you?

Of course they know, she said. Why should they tell us not to? They know we’re just playing.

Why don’t you play here in the drawing room, or there in the garden, or out there where they play cricket?

You can’t play Houses out in the garden, she said. It has to be somewhere dark and secret …

She crawled around me again, through the hall and into the drawing room. Then she squatted and drew a thin rectangle next to the drawing room wall.

That’s the staircase, she said. You have to climb up it and then you come to the bedrooms.

She drew another set of lines, right next to the staircase. That’s Aunty Elisabeth’s bedroom, she said. It’s right above the drawing room. If you look out of these windows you can see the cricket field.

I shook my head violently; something about those lines had begun to disturb me.

You’re lying, I shouted at her. That can’t be a staircase because it’s flat, and staircases go up, they aren’t flat. And that can’t be upstairs because upstairs has to be above and that isn’t above; that’s right beside the drawing room.

I dropped to my knees and began to scrabble around in the dust, rubbing out the lines, shouting: You’re lying, you’re mad, this can’t be a house …

She put her hands against my chest and pushed. She wasn’t very strong, but she managed to push me back on my heels.

You’re stupid, she said. Don’t you understand? I’ve just rearranged things a little. If we pretend it’s a house, it’ll be a house. We can choose to build a house wherever we like.

No! I cried. It won’t be a real house. It can’t be.

Why? she asked, smiling.

Frowning, I puzzled over the pattern in the dust.

It can’t be a real house, I said at last, because it doesn’t have a veranda.

Veranda? she said in amazement, rolling the word slowly around her mouth as though she had forgotten its taste. What shall we do with a veranda?

She was uncertain now, biting her nails, unable to find a place for verandas in the world of her invention. And, I, sensing her confusion, felt a sudden, predatory thrill of triumph.

I gave her a shove. Of course we must have a veranda, I said. Otherwise how will we know what’s going on outside?

There was much more to say, I knew, but I could not think of how to say it: a nice house had to have a veranda; why, even our small flat had a veranda. To me the necessity of verandas was no more accountable than the need for doors and walls.

I fell on my knees and, leaning over her house, I rubbed away a line and drew another in its place.

Look, I said. There’s our veranda.

She stared at me aghast, rubbing her knuckles against her teeth. I could tell from the brightness of her eyes that she was close to tears.

You can’t do that, she said. You can’t put it there.

I rocked back on my haunches, hugging my knees: Why not?

Because, she said, that’s going to be Magda’s room.

Magda? I said. But Magda isn’t here.

Magda was Ila’s doll. I had seen it once. It was a huge doll, almost as big as Ila, with pink cheeks and snow-white arms, bright gold hair, and blue eyes that opened on their own every time it was picked up. The eyes had intrigued me; I’d wanted to see whether they were real. But when I had put out my hand to touch them, Ila had slapped my fingers away and shouted: You can’t touch Magda.

And anyway, I said warily to Ila, why should a doll need a room?

Not Magda the doll, Ila cried. This is the real Magda – our baby. A house has to have a baby.

What does Magda look like?

She has nice golden hair, said Ila frowning, trying to remember.

She has blue eyes and she goes to school every day.

Kindergarten? I said.

No, of course not. She goes to a proper school.

But then, I interrupted triumphantly, she can’t be a baby. She has to be as old as us.

Stupid, Ila said. We’re grown-ups now; it doesn’t matter how old she is.

She yawned, stretched, and rubbed her eyes.

First, she said, we have to wake up, get out of bed and change. And then you have to go to work. I’ll take Magda to school after you’ve gone.

She reached for the hem of her dress, slipped it over her head and draped it over her shoulder.

There, she said, grinning, hugging her chest. Look, I’m changing.

She was bare-chested now, naked, but for her blue, frilled underwear. She looked very thin and fragile, her dark body a wispy shadow in the gloom. Her shoulders were pointed, the bones forming sharp-edged ridges under the skin. I was puzzled by her stick-like bones. I stretched out my hand and ran my fingers over the china-thin ribs, up to the ridges of her shoulder and along the curve of her arm, down the sharp angle of her elbow, and up again, to the nutlike wrist she had dug into her chest. There was a spot above her nipple, a tiny, black bump.

What’s that? I said, rubbing it with my thumb.

Stop that, she said giggling.

I thought I could feel the bump rolling under her skin, like a tiny pea or a mustard seed, embedded inside. I pinched it, wondering whether it would burst. She shivered, and I shivered too, taking myself by surprise.

Stop that, she said sharply. But I couldn’t stop – I was curious about her bump, intrigued by its velvety hardness; I wondered whether it had a taste, I wanted to feel it with my tongue.

But she slapped my head away and pushed me back.

Stop it, she said. You have to go to work now. We’ll pretend you’ve already changed.

I peered apprehensively around the murky room. Where do I have to go to work? I asked.

There, she said, pointing at a crazily tilted chest of drawers. That’s your office. Go on now. You can’t come back until I tell you and you can’t look back at the house to see what I’m doing.

I darted out, ran to the chest of drawers, and stood there with my eyes shut, counting loudly, as we did when we played hide-and-seek. An age seemed to pass, though it was probably no more than five minutes, for I’d only counted twice to one hundred. Then Ila called out: All right, you can come back now. Magda’s back home from school.

She was waiting for me in the garden. Leaning against the cherry tree. Before I reached the wicket gate that opened out into Lymington Road, she shouted out: Do you know what happened to Magda today?

What? I said, following her into the house. What happened to Magda?

Before she would tell me, she took me into the drawing room and made me sit down.

The children in Magda’s new school had never seen anyone like her. It was terrible for her on her first day at school. They stared and stared until Mrs Tolland had to tell them not to. But even then, though they were scared of Mrs Tolland, they’d still pretend to drop their books and pencils just so they could turn around to look at Magda. They were still staring at her now, after she’d been there two whole weeks.

The reason they stared like that, all of them, girls, boys, even the teachers, was that they’d never seen anyone as beautiful as Magda. They had never seen hair that shone like hers – like a bright, golden light. They had never seen such deep blue eyes, nor cheeks as pink and healthy and smiling as hers. And they hadn’t seen clothes like hers either: so clean and so beautifully ironed that they looked more like the dresses you see in shop windows in Oxford Street than a school uniform. Even the bag she took to school was so much nicer than theirs: a beautiful leather bag her father had bought for her in Florence, not a bit like the ugly satchels they brought with them.

You couldn’t blame them for staring: they’d never seen anyone as beautiful as Magda. And they liked her too: they all wanted to be friends with her – girls, boys, teachers, all of them. On the playground they would sometimes come up to her and whisper in her ear: I want to be your best friend.

But there was one girl who hated Magda from the very first day. Her name was Denise.

Now Denise was ugly. She had dirty red hair which hung down from her head like greasy quills. She didn’t have a mother to wash her hair for her; her mother had left her and run away to Australia. And her skin, her skin was like dirty ice-cream – pale and grainy and peppered with blackheads. Even the teacher shuddered every time she looked at Denise.

But Denise was very big, bigger than the biggest boy in the class. And she was very strong too: she had once knocked out a boy’s teeth with a punch.

So everyone was nice to Denise because everyone was afraid of her. It was Denise who decided who could be friends with whom and if Denise didn’t like someone, well, that was it, she made sure no one spoke to her.

But once Magda arrived Denise could see that she wasn’t going to have it all her own way any more. She saw how the other children looked at Magda; she could see they wanted to be her friends. And even though she tried to stop them she knew they talked to Magda whenever she, Denise, was out of their sight.

As the days went by the more Denise hated Magda.

Then today it happened.

Mrs Tolland asked Denise to write a sentence on the blackboard. Denise went to the blackboard, and when she’d finished the class saw that what she’d written was: John cot the ball.

The whole class burst into laughter.

Then Mrs Tolland asked Magda to write the sentence. And of course Magda knew, so she wrote: John caught the ball, in her beautiful round handwriting.

Good girl, Mrs Tolland said to her, and then she turned to Denise and said: Well, Denise, perhaps you ought to take English lessons from her, even though it’s your own language, not hers.

Everyone turned to look at Denise and laughed and laughed. Denise had to sit there and listen.

When Magda was going back to her desk, she heard Denise say: See you outside, little wog. She saw how Denise had gone red in the face and she was scared.

So today, after school, she decided not to come back the way she usually does. Most days she walks through the park near Hillfield Road, but today she didn’t. She thought she would hurry past the park and take the other road instead.

After school, that was what she meant to do. But when she turned the corner near the park, keeping her head down so that nobody would notice her, she heard someone shout: Little wog, nig-nog!

She didn’t turn to look, but she knew it was Denise; she could tell from the voice. She began to walk faster.

But the voice followed her, shouting: Don’t run, little wog, nig-nog.

Now Magda began to run. She ran across the road without stopping to look right or left, as she’d been told to. She was very scared now. She dropped her bag, and though she knew Baba would be furious with her if she lost it, she didn’t dare stop. She was running as fast as she could, in a straight line. She could hear them running too, three or four of them, right behind her, catching up. But she was running fast now, faster than she ever had before, and she could tell that some of them were giving up. Now there was only one pair of feet running after her. She could hear them clearly, thudding on the pavement behind her.

Something hit her between her shoulders, and she fell sprawling on the pavement. When she looked up, Denise was scowling down at her, panting: Bloody wog, nig-nog.

An open hand came slashing down and struck Magda on the face. Magda’s cheek hit the pavement. She could see her blood spattering in the dust.

Denise was crouching over her. Her face was so close that Magda could smell the Mars bars on her breath.

Nig-nog, she said, filthy little nig-nog, and she stuck her fist into Magda’s mouth. Then she swung her hand back again. Magda shut her eyes, covered her face and waited. There was nothing else she could do; Denise was too strong for her.

And then there was a little yelp of pain and she heard Denise being pulled off her. She didn’t dare look at first.

When she opened her eyes, there he was, with his hands on his hips, standing over her.

Go on, Nick Price said to Denise. Go on, get out of here.

Denise made a face and scrabbled to her feet.

When she was gone, Nick Price knelt down beside Magda and wiped her face with the sleeve of his shirt. He helped her to her feet and put a sweet in her mouth and, taking her hand in his, he said: Come on, I’ll take you home now.

That was how Nick Price had looked to me, under that table: a boy in shorts, like me, but much bigger, his head a blaze of yellow, rescuing a little girl from her tormentor.

But then, unaccountably, Ila had burst into tears.

When I had finished telling May this story, in that very room, three years later, she’d put a hand on my shoulder and said: Come on, let’s go out, it’s terribly dark in here.

I led her out into the brilliant sunlight of the portico, and she flopped down on one of the stairs that led down into the paved courtyard. Reaching for my hand, she pulled me down beside her.

That wasn’t quite what happened, she said gently. You do know that, don’t you?

I shook my head.

I happened to be at home that day, she said. And I know that Nick didn’t stop to help Ila. He ran all the way back. He used to run back home from school early those days.


May plucked out a peepul leaf that was growing out of the brick staircase and fanned herself with it.

I’m not sure, she said. But I think Nick didn’t want to be seen with Ila. Ila didn’t have any friends in school, you see. Perhaps it was just that she was shy. But after she began going to school Nick used to come home much earlier than he used to. Then that day something happened in Ila’s class, and I think Nick got to hear of it. He ran back even earlier than usual and went straight up to his room. Mummy asked him what the matter was but he wouldn’t tell her. An hour or so later, just when we were beginning to worry about Ila, a policeman brought her back. She was a bit bruised, but otherwise all right. She never told us what happened but she didn’t go back to school after that. And then, soon after, they left.

I tried then to think of Ila walking back from school alone through the lanes of West Hampstead. I could see her swinging her schoolbag in time with her footsteps, faster and faster, until she was almost running, laughing out loud, so that people turned to smile after her; Ila walking, smiling to herself as I had sometimes seen her, her dimple rippling on her cheek. Ila walking alone in a drizzle under that cold grey sky: Ila who in Calcutta was surrounded by so many relatives and cars and servants that she would never have had to walk so much as the length of the street – and as for alone, why there we were, all of us, I, her relatives, her friends, all waiting to walk with Ila, Ila the sophisticate, who could tell us stories about smart girls and rich boys in far-away countries whose names we had learnt from maps. Ila walking alone because Nick Price was ashamed to be seen by his friends, walking home with an Indian.

You shouldn’t think too badly of him, May said. She was pleading with me now. He was very young, and at that age children want everyone to be alike.

Many years later, when my grandmother had been lying in bed for months with what was to prove to be her final illness, one evening, while I was sitting by her bedside, I found myself telling her the story Ila had told me and about the odd little ending that May had added.

That evening, although she was surrounded by oxygen cylinders, bottles of glucose, disposable syringes and all the other paraphernalia of her sickness, she seemed more cheerful than she had been in a long time. When she had heard me out she said: I don’t blame the boy. It was Ila’s fault. It was her own fault, and Maya’s fault and the fault of that half-witted mother of hers. It was bound to happen: anyone can see that. She has no right to be there. She doesn’t belong there.

She buried her head in a towel and began to cough. In the two weeks that had passed since I came back from Delhi for my college’s summer holidays I had been kept up every night by that hollow, echoing cough. After a quarter of an hour the fit left her and she fell back panting, on her pillows. She turned to look at me, with a handkerchief clamped over her mouth. I knew then, from the brightness of her eyes, that she was about to go into one of her sudden rages. I rose guiltily from my chair, angry with myself for having told her the story, and tried to calm her.

It doesn’t matter, Tha’mma, I said, pulling her shawl over her thin, trembling shoulders. It doesn’t matter. Lie down now and rest.

Ila shouldn’t be there, she said, stammering hoarsely. She doesn’t belong there. What’s she doing in that country?

She’s just studying there for a while, Tha’mma, I said gently. At that time Ila was at University College in London, doing a BA in history.

But she shouldn’t be there, my grandmother cried, pushing my hands feebly away.

I leant back in my chair looking helplessly at her. Over the last few months the flesh had wasted slowly away from her face so that the skin on her cheeks hung down now, like dry, brittle leather.

Ila has no right to live there, she said hoarsely. She doesn’t belong there. It took those people a long time to build that country; hundreds of years, years and years of war and bloodshed. Everyone who lives there has earned his right to be there with blood: with their brother’s blood and their father’s blood and their son’s blood. They know they’re a nation because they’ve drawn their borders with blood. Hasn’t Maya told you how regimental flags hang in all their cathedrals and how all their churches are lined with memorials to men who died in wars, all around the world? War is their religion. That’s what it takes to make a country. Once that happens people forget they were born this or that, Muslim or Hindu, Bengali or Punjabi: they become a family born of the same pool of blood. That is what you have to achieve for India, don’t you see?

I can still see her as though it had happened today, her eyes bloodshot, threads of phlegm hanging from her lips, while she lies ranting in her bed. And yet, when I look at her, lying crumpled in front of me, her white thinning hair matted with her invalid’s sweat, my heart fills with love for her – love and that other thing, which is not pity but something else, something the English language knows only in its absence – ruth – a tenderness which is not merely pity and not only love. It comes over me so powerfully that even now I can feel the anger that exploded in my head once when I told Ila what she had said, and Ila, drawing on her cigarette, made some offhand remark about warmongering fascists. I remembered how I shouted at her and told her what Tridib had once said: that she was not a fascist, she was only a modern middle-class woman – though not wholly, for she would not permit herself the self-deceptions that make up the fantasy world of that kind of person. All she wanted was a middle-class life in which, like the middle classes the world over, she would thrive believing in the unity of nationhood and territory, of self-respect and national power; that was all she wanted – a modern middle-class life, a small thing, that history had denied her in its fullness and for which she could never forgive it.

Early next morning my grandmother asked that I be sent to her room. When I sat down beside her I saw that her eyes were bloodshot and her face pale and more strained than ever.

Shall I tell you why Ila lives there? she said, propping herself up on her elbow.

I pleaded with her to lie down, to rest, but she cut me short.

Shall I tell you what Ila’s gone there for? she said. She was shivering now, her eyes burning in her face. She’s gone there because she’s greedy; she’s gone there for money.

I couldn’t help smiling then.

Why should she go there for money? I said. Her family has much more money here than they’d ever have over there. She’s the only grandchild in the family and you know how rich they are. If she stayed here she would have more money than she could count in a lifetime. And she would have houses and servants and cars too. She has nothing over there. She lives in a tiny room in a house she has to share with five other students; she has to cook and clean and do all kinds of things that a dozen servants would rush to do for her here …

It’s not just money, my grandmother cried. It’s things: it’s all the things money can buy – fridges like the one Mrs Sen’s son-in-law brought back from America, with two doors and a spout that drops ice-cubes into your glass; colour TVs and cars, calculators and cameras, all those things you can’t get here.

But she doesn’t have things, I retorted, trying to keep my voice in control. You know that. She has to live on pocket money; she doesn’t have the money to buy things like that. Besides, she doesn’t want things. She spends her spare time going on demonstrations and acting in radical plays for Indian immigrants in east London. You know that – when she was here last, you asked me yourself: Has Ila become a communist?

She’s a greedy little slut, my grandmother said, pounding on the bedclothes with a fist she had not the strength to clench properly. I can’t understand why you’re defending her. You tell me then, since you know her so well: why does she live there, if it’s not for the money and the comforts?

By that time I was so angry that I did tell her.

The year before, Ila had come to Calcutta in summer, at almost exactly the same time that Robi and I came back from Delhi for the university’s summer vacations.

Ila’s trip was very sudden. She had made up her mind two days after her college in London closed for the vacations. Then she had rung her father in Bratislava and he had rung his travel agent in London and four days later she was in Calcutta.

It was so sudden that even my parents didn’t know.

When the Kalka Mail from Delhi got in at Howrah Station they were waiting, as they always were, under the old clock that no one had ever seen working, on platform 9: my mother in a sea-green sari, flushed with pleasure at the thought of having me back for the summer; my father bustling, looking after our luggage, organising. We dropped Robi at their house in Ballygunge Place, where he was to spend a few days before going off to visit his parents in Darjeeling.

After I had banished my four-month-old, college-starved hunger with an hour-long meal, my mother, in her usual anxiously circuitous way, was trying to find out what I would like, really like to eat for dinner, when my grandmother declared grimly: You’d better forget about his dinner. You’re not likely to see him this evening.

Why not? my mother cried, turning to her in alarm. But I’ve already made …

Because, my grandmother said, her eyes boring into mine; because Ila is here.

I waited, not daring to believe what she had said.

Ila’s here! said my mother. How do you know?

She rang yesterday, said my grandmother. Queen Victoria had asked her to enquire after my health.

Why didn’t you tell us? my mother said.

Because I thought you’d like to have him here for lunch, my grandmother said.

How is she? I asked her. Did she say?

I’m sure she’s fine, said my grandmother. Perhaps she’s even better than she was when she came here last year – with her hair cut short, like the bristles on a toothbrush, wearing tight trousers like a Free School Street whore.

I wonder why she’s come now, my mother said quickly, changing the subject. Why in this heat?

Because, Ila told me an hour later, when we were sitting in her room in their Elgin Road house; this is when I have my holidays too, you know, and besides I haven’t been back for a year.

Anyway, she laughed, watching me as I mopped my sweating face with a handkerchief, the heat bothers you much more than it does me.

And of course she was right: the heat hadn’t touched her.

She looked younger with her hair cut, boyish in a way, and she was thinner too; her arms were like wands, and the dimple was never quite gone from her cheek. She looked improbably exotic to me, dressed in faded blue jeans and a T-shirt – like no girl I had ever seen before except in pictures in American magazines.

There she is, in the green afternoon darkness of that shuttered, high-ceilinged room, not quite sitting, but draped over a leather armchair, her legs thrown over the back so that the top of her jeans has crept away from her T-shirt and left the hollow of her stomach glowing in the darkness; her body cradled lazily in the seat, her head flung back over the arm, so that her small breasts have thrust the thin cotton of her T-shirt into two gentle points which harden with her breathing, and then swell away again into dark circles, one of them dotted with a tiny black mole. She flops about in the chair, heedless of her body, childlike, and I, bracing the muscles in my thighs to contain the dull, swelling ache in my groin, have to roll over on my stomach and look at a magazine, though that makes the pain much worse, like the throbbing of a tourniquet, as though something were about to burst in my balls. I push myself away from her, along the floor, for I cannot let her see me like this, not for shame, but merely to preserve my friendship with her, for I know that between us there lies a chequerboard of relationships in which I have been given the place of a cousin, a favourite perhaps, but still a cousin and nothing more.

The day before Robi was to leave for Darjeeling, we spent a long sleepy day in their house, lolling about in her room, looking for cool spots on the floor, reading and quarrelling. When the afternoon had dragged itself out and the sun had set, Ila threw open the shutters. The sight of the cars inching along the road below seemed to act on her like a tonic.

Come on, she said, tugging at my hand; let’s go out somewhere. We can’t lie about all day like this. Besides, Robi’s leaving tomorrow. I think we should give him a party.

Robi stirred torpidly on the floor and dropped the book he had been reading. A party, he said. In this heat?

Yes, said Ila. Let’s go somewhere and have fun.

Robi and I exchanged a long, doubtful look.

I haven’t got enough money, I said.

I’ve got money, she laughed. I’ll give you a treat.

But where can we go? said Robi.

I’ll tell you what, said Ila; let’s go to the Grand Hotel. I’ve heard they have a nightclub there.

What are we going to do in a nightclub? said Robi.

We can drink a few beers, said Ila. And watch the cabaret – that kind of thing.

Drink! cried Robi. In a place like that?

What’s the matter? she said sharply. You do drink don’t you? What about that story you were telling me about the send-off you got from your pals in college? You are a little hypocrite.

Judgements of that kind came very easily to Ila, because to her morality could only be an absolute. She could understand and admire someone who never ate meat on principle, but a person who was a vegetarian only at home was, to her, the worst kind of hypocrite. She knew that Robi was quite happy to risk expulsion occasionally by smuggling bottles of rum into his room and drinking the night away with his friends, and because she could not see that he would do those things in college precisely because there was a certain innocence about those exploits in those circumstances, the kind of monasticism that honours the rules of the order in their breach, she could not understand why Robi would feel himself defiled, drinking in a nightclub, surrounded by paunchy men with dark-pouched eyes. She could not understand the real nature of his prudishness because context had no place in her judgements.

It’s just petit-bourgeois nastiness, Ila had said to me once about Robi. It’s a mystery to me how he’s become such a legend in your college: I thought students were meant to be defiant of narrow-mindedness. But undergraduates respect muscles, I suppose, and he’s got plenty of those.

I had been puzzled too when I first discovered how much deference Robi commanded in college. It was hard to understand, for he did not excel particularly in any of the spheres which were held to confer distinction in that milieu: he was not unusually good at sports, just about good enough to keep a place in the college cricket eleven; he was good at his studies but not brilliant; he was not clever, not well dressed, not talented, nor in any way unlike a dozen others in our college, and yet, without asking for it, barely seeming to notice, he commanded a respect immeasurably greater than the best sportsmen and the most brilliant students.

It took me time to see that this respect was really a tribute to the superhuman simplicity of his view of the world: to the fact that he had no hesitation in making judgements – because there were whole domains of conduct within which he would not admit the possibility of argument – and no fear of defending them, because of his abundant physical courage. Once, for example, there was a great uproar in our college because a student had been expelled for some minor misdemeanour – for asking a girl up to his room for a cup of tea or some such thing. The students’ union was unanimous in calling for a strike. But Robi, alone in the whole college, refused to go along with everyone else: he didn’t argue or make speeches, he merely refused to attend the union meetings. And when some of the union’s leaders threatened to give him a beating, they found to their surprise that he was relieved at the prospect of settling the issue by a straightforward physical contest. Such was his standing in the college that eventually the leaders gave in and the strike was called off.

Later, I asked him: Why wouldn’t you join the strike? Tell me, just as a matter of interest.

He wouldn’t answer, so I asked him again, and then reluctantly he said: Because a rule’s a rule; if you break one you have to be willing to pay the price.

But is it a good rule? I asked. He only smiled, and no matter how hard I tried I could not get him to answer my question.

I understood then that he could not answer: that his authority grew out of that subterranean realm of judgement which we call morality, the condition of whose success is that its rulings be always shrouded from argument. I understood why his opinions always prevailed against his peers’: because while they had to find their way through a fog of ordinary confusions, in every difficult situation Robi had an intuition which led him directly to what he knew he ought to do, even if he did not know why. And they followed him since he, uniquely, was willing to defend those inconvenient, often ridiculous, scruples which they could only too easily be persuaded to forget. That was why they, and I, both admired him and feared him, and that was why his courage, even when it manifested itself physically, was moral in the purest sense.

Come on, enjoy yourself for once, said Ila. You’ll be going away soon anyway, so you can forget all about it afterwards.

But why do you want to go to the Grand Hotel? said Robi.

Because it’s the poshest place in the city, of course, said Ila, tipping her head back. Isn’t that the best possible reason?

I don’t want to go to a place like that, Robi said.

But once Ila had made up her mind she had to have her way. She bent down in front of him and touched her forehead to his feet.

Please, Robi-kaku, she said. Please, just this once. If you don’t like it, we’ll leave. I promise.

So we went: Ila resplendent in a silk blouse and a skirt, Robi and I grimly insistent on not changing out of our usual student uniform of kurta and crumpled trousers.

When we reached the entrance of the Grand Hotel and saw the beturbaned doorman’s dead-fish eyes flicking disdainfully over us, both Robi and I would have kept on walking, all the way down Chowringhee. But Ila was right behind us, and with a rustle of silk she shepherded us through the corridor, into a chandeliered hall. She led us to the reception counter and in the plummiest of her English accents she asked them to show us the way to the nightclub. Suitably awed, they sent a liveried attendant to show us the way. He led us down another corridor to a large, ornate door. He pushed the door open, pocketed Ila’s tip, and stood aside, bowing.

We heard the hum of an electric guitar echoing out of the darkness, somewhere inside the cavernous room.

I’m not going in there, said Robi. He pulled his hand out of Ila’s; he was sweating.

Oh come on, Ila said in exasperation. Come on, Uncle Robi. You’ve made your point: we’re willing to accept that you’re just a poor peasant horrified by the badness of the big city. So now you may as well relax and enjoy yourself.

She took his hand again and he let himself be led in.

It was so dark inside that the waiter had to lead us through the clusters of empty tables with an electric torch. I felt the touch of something moist and strangely furry on my face. Instinctively, my arm rose to fight it off. I felt it again, on my forearm, and jumped backwards, knocking over a chair.

What are those things? I cried, my skin tingling. Something touched me.

It’s only the decorations, sir, said the waiter. He brought us to a halt at an empty table and pulled back a chair for Ila. We sat down, and when our eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness, we saw that every available space was covered with nodding palm fronds. There were catamarans painted on the walls and clusters of coconuts were dangling from the roof. Ila pointed at the band, on a platform beside the dance floor; it consisted of four men in dark suits, bow ties and straw hats.

She giggled: I think it’s meant to be a beach.

Clasping her hands she looked at the two of us, smiling. All right, she said, shall we ask for some beer?

I nodded when she turned to me, but Robi said nothing.

Can’t you just pretend that you’re in college? she said. If it makes you feel less of a hypocrite?

Robi raised his hand abruptly and signalled to the waiter. When the waiter came, he said: Get us three beers, please.

He put his hands flat on the table and turned to look at Ila, swivelling his broad, powerful shoulders.

Do your Trotskyite comrades know, he said, how you spend your time when you’re not demonstrating for the revolution?

She smiled, and tapped his cheek with her forefinger. You can’t demonstrate for a revolution stupid, she said. And yes they do know, and they don’t care because Trotskyists aren’t joyless little clerks like you’re getting to be.

She was angry with herself as soon as she said it.

Oh come on, Robi, she pleaded. It’s your last evening here. Let’s not quarrel.

That made Robi angrier still, but as always, when he was really angry, he could not think of anything to say. Then our bottles of beer arrived, and he busied himself pouring them out. When our glasses were full, he raised his and drained half of it in one long swallow. Then he leant back, wiping his mouth, breathing hard, and stared into it.

To my relief, there was a loud roll on the drums and the leader of the band announced into the microphone: Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, we have Miss Jennifer here, to sing for you. Please give her a hand.

Miss Jennifer swam out of the darkness, bowing and bobbing, a paper-pale, matronly woman, in a skin-tight crimson sheath covered with silver spangles.

Hi folks! she trilled in a thin, high voice, full of professional gaiety. Hi there! Come on now then, get yourself ready, you all, for a whole bagful of fun.

The spotlights spun, her spangles erupted into flashes of colour and she strutted down to the table next to us.

Now then, she said huskily into the microphone. Who have we got here?

The two middle-aged businessmen who were sitting at the table wriggled in shy delight. She patted their cheeks, but when they stretched their hands out to touch her, she slapped them away and danced out of reach, noisily clicking her tongue.

My, my, she said, looking at them through her eyelashes. Aren’t we naughty today?

If she comes here, Robi said into his glass, I’m going to knock her teeth in.

But instead she walked into the middle of the dance floor, flung her arms dramatically outwards, like a diver on a high board, and cried: All right folks – let’s dance with Ol’ Blue Eyes – let’s dance with a stranger tonight.

Yes, gasped Ila, that’s it. Let’s dance, that’ll cheer us up.

Come on, she said, tugging at my hand. Get up, let’s dance.

But I was clumsy and self-conscious on my feet at the best of times. And when I looked at the empty expanse of the dance floor, at plump Miss Jennifer swaying in the middle, and the hungry eyes of the businessmen staring at her, I knew that I would never be able to step on to that floor.

No, I said, shaking my head. I couldn’t, not here.

She turned away disappointedly. Robi? she said. Wouldn’t you like to dance?

I can’t dance, he said, raising his head to look at her. And even if I could, I wouldn’t in a place like this. I think you should sit down, for you’re not going to dance either.

At first she was merely surprised.

I’m not going to dance? she said. Why not?

Because I won’t let you, said Robi evenly.

You won’t let me? she said. The muscles of her face went slowly rigid.

You won’t let me? she said. Why, who do you think you are?

Robi folded his arms across his chest. It doesn’t matter who I am, he said. I won’t let you.

She turned to look at me now, her lips going thin and bloodless. Does he think, she asked me, that I’m one of his college freshers or something? Does he think because he’s got a lot of muscles he can stop me? Does he think I’m scared of a college bully? Well, let’s see him stop me.

She kicked her chair back and rose to her feet.

I put out my hand and tugged at her skirt. Ila, please don’t, I said. You don’t know him. Please sit down and let’s go home.

She gave my hand a stinging slap. I’m going to find out, she said. Let’s see what he does to stop me.

I jumped to my feet and stood in front of her. Ila, please, I said. What are you going to do?

She pushed me aside. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, she said. I’m going to go over to those two businessmen over there, and I’m going to ask the thin one to dance with me.

She turned on her heel and walked away.

Pivoting in his chair, Robi watched her walk up to the two businessmen. We saw her smiling at them, then she bent her head gracefully to talk to the thinner of the two, and he started to his feet. We watched as his face creased into a smile and then clouded over with a leering, greedy suspicion. Then she smiled again, and he, nodding eagerly, stepped out to take her hand.

I heard the scrape of Robi’s chair and stepped sideways to stop him. He elbowed me away and reached them with three long strides. He caught hold of the neck of Ila’s blouse with one hand and wrenched her away from the businessman. Then he opened the palm of his hand and planted it squarely in the middle of the man’s chest. Arching his shoulder back, he swivelled, suddenly, with so much force that the man staggered back for a good five feet or so, taking his chair with him.

The singer dropped her microphone and the band froze into a silvery tableau under the spotlight. There was a moment of complete silence. Then, like a reel of film coming unstuck, everyone sprang to life, and a crowd of waiters surrounded us.

The only person who was perfectly calm was Robi. He held his hands open in front of him and said, in a quiet, mild voice: Don’t touch me. We’ll pay and we’ll leave right now, but don’t touch me.

He took out his wallet and handed one of the waiters a fifty-rupee note. Then he put his arm around Ila and led us out. The waiters followed us all the way to the pavement.

Ila did not say a word until we had walked as far as the museum. At the corner she stopped and leant against the wrought-iron railings.

Have you gone mad? she said to Robi, spitting the words through her teeth. What did you think you were doing?

Look, Robi said. It’s over now, let’s just forget it.

We won’t forget it, she said; she was screaming now, but with her voice very low, in that way women have. We will not forget it. Just tell me: what did you think you were doing?

Listen, Ila, Robi said, shaking his head. You shouldn’t have done what you did. You ought to know that; girls don’t behave like that here.

What the fuck do you mean? she spat at him. What do you mean ‘girls’? I’ll do what I bloody well want, when I want and where.

No you won’t, he said. Not if I’m around. Girls don’t behave like that here.

Why not? she screamed. Why fucking well not?

You can do what you like in England, he said. But here there are certain things you cannot do. That’s our culture; that’s how we live.

She stared at him, wide-eyed, speechless. Then she spun around to face me. Do you see now? she cried. She bit her lip fiercely and the tears came pouring out of her brimming eyes.

I put my arms around her and pulled her towards me. She rubbed her face into my kurta, sobbing, saying over and over again: Do you see now? Do you understand? – and I, uncomprehending, repeated after her: See what? Understand what? while trying to stop the flow of her tears with the back of my hand.

Then she pushed me away and waved at a taxi. It stopped, and she darted into it, rolled down the window, and shouted: Do you see now why I’ve chosen to live in London? Do you see? It’s only because I want to be free.

Free of what? I said.

Free of you! she shouted back. Free of your bloody culture and free of all of you.

The taxi started moving and I began to run along with it.

You can never be free of me, I shouted through the open window. If I were to die tomorrow you would not be free of me. You cannot be free of me because I am within you … just as you are within me.

Then the taxi picked up speed and disappeared along Chowringhee.

So that was what I told my grandmother as she lay in her sickbed, glaring at me; I told her that Ila lived in London only because she wanted to be free.

But I knew I had made a mistake the moment I said it; I should have known that she would have nothing but contempt for a freedom that could be bought for the price of an air ticket. For she too had once wanted to be free; she had dreamt of killing for her freedom.

It’s not freedom she wants, said my grandmother, her bloodshot eyes glowing in the hollows of her withered face. She wants to be left alone to do what she pleases; that’s all that any whore would want. She’ll find it easily enough over there; that’s what those places have to offer. But that is not what it means to be free.

I got up then and went back to my room. Staring out of my window, at the darkness of the lake, I saw Ila’s face again, as I had seen it that night in the taxi, wet with tears, twisted with anger and hatred, and I thought of how much they all wanted to be free; how they went mad wanting their freedom; I began to wonder whether it was I that was mad because I was happy to be bound: whether I was alone in knowing that I could not live without the clamour of the voices within me.

I went to see my grandmother again next morning.

She had a nurse now, and the moment she saw me entering the room she asked the nurse to turn her over so that she would be facing away from me. I addressed a few general remarks to her back but she wouldn’t answer.

The nurse was embarrassed. She said to my grandmother, in her most cheerful voice: Come on now, why don’t you answer his questions? He’s your grandson, after all.

I could not see the expression on my grandmother’s face when she said that, but I could imagine it. She reached for the bedpan that was kept on a low table beside her bed and tried to fling it at the nurse. But she was so weak that she barely managed to tip it on to the floor.

The nurse was shaken: she had only been with my grandmother a couple of days. She had taken her to be a gentle thing.

You should go now, she said to me, the patient is upset.

I slipped quickly across the room. But when I opened the door, I heard my grandmother’s voice issuing from the bed. It was her old voice, the strong voice I remembered, not the voice she had developed during her sickness.

Why do you always speak for that whore? she said.

I spun around. Who are you talking about? I said, staring at the back of her head.

That memshaheb whore, she said. Ila. Why do you always defend her? What does she mean to you?

The nurse darted across to wipe the spittle from her mouth and I slipped out of the room.

That evening my grandmother’s condition worsened. We heard her through the walls of our rooms, labouring for her breath, all through the night. When I went to see her next morning she was lying in a tiny exhausted heap on her pillows. As soon as I entered her room she fixed her red-rimmed eyes on me and said: Why don’t you answer me? Tell me: what does that English whore mean to you?

The nurse hurried over before I could say anything and bundled me out of the room.

For a few days after that her condition deteriorated steadily. Arrangements were made for setting up an oxygen tent over her bed. We had a doctor sleeping in the house at night now, as well as a nurse. Sometimes during the day, the nurse would allow us to watch her labouring for her breath inside the oxygen tent. But none of us was allowed to speak to her. The doctors wanted to move her to a hospital but she had enough strength left to tell them that she would rather die at home than in an institution.

Then, slowly, she recovered. The oxygen tent was removed and my mother began to spend a lot of time sitting beside her bed. But neither my father nor I were allowed into the room.

My holidays were almost over now. Since my grandmother’s condition had improved my parents decided that I ought to go back to Delhi: my final year examinations were only three months away and I had hardly studied at all during the holidays. I had prepared myself to stay on, but I was only too glad to take their advice.

The day I was to catch the train, my mother took me into my grandmother’s room to take my leave of her. She was sitting up in bed and she seemed better than she had been in a long time. To my relief she talked quite cheerfully about my college and the forthcoming examinations. I touched her feet when it was time for me to leave, and, as always, she pulled my head to her breast, to bless me. I heard the quiet, familiar murmur of her blessings. Then she lowered her mouth to my ear, so that I could feel the heat of her breath on my face.

Why have you let that whore trap you? she whispered. I know it’s she who’s sent you into the arms of those whores you go to in Delhi. Do you think I don’t know? Did you think I would allow it?

I jerked my head out of her hands. She met my gaze and smiled. I could not believe that this withered, wasted, powerless woman was the same person that I had so much loved and feared.

For two months my parents wrote to me every other day with news of my grandmother. Her condition improved for a while after I left Calcutta. Then, for no reason that doctors could perceive, it became very serious for a week or so. Again she recovered miraculously till she was well enough to read and even write a few letters.

Then for a whole week my parents’ letters stopped. I did not have time to think about anything but Indian history then, so I did not worry, except in passing.

In their next letter my parents wrote that my grandmother had died and that she had been cremated the day after her death. They had decided not to send me a telegram in case I decided to rush off to Calcutta. They didn’t want to disturb me when my examinations were so close.

I wished desperately that day that Robi, who had been gone for almost a year, was still in college. I could think of no one else I wanted to talk to, so I wandered out of the college, down the road to the Maurice Nagar bus stop. An empty 210 came along after a while and I climbed into it. I got a window seat and stared out, watching the parks on Ring Road and the walls of the Red Fort go by. When the bus reached the Central Secretariat, I crossed the road and took another 210 back. At Mall Road I decided to get off and walk. It was already dark then, the roads deserted, the whole university silent under the pall of the examinations.

Walking along the deserted avenue, I found myself crying, not so much in grief as anger that my parents had not informed me in time, so that I could be there when they cremated her. I climbed up the steep road that led to the monument on the Ridge, and sitting there, on the grass, I found my anger ebbing away. There seemed to be something fitting, after all, in the manner in which I had learnt of my grandmother’s death: she had always been too passionate a person to find a real place in my tidy late-bourgeois world, the world that I had inherited, in which examinations were more important than death.

Two days later a peon brought me a message from the dean of our college. He wanted to see me urgently. I put away my textbooks and hurried off to his offices. He was a small, self-important little man whom nobody liked. But nobody took the trouble to particularly dislike him either: he didn’t seem to warrant it.

He signalled me to a chair when I entered his office. When I had sat down he tapped a sheet of paper that was lying in front of him, on his desk, and said: I’m sorry to disturb you at this time, but there is a very serious matter at hand. Expulsion, if not rustication, is also possible. This is a very serious matter. After all, there is the medical angle to be considered.

Ridiculous though he was, I was alarmed by the tone of his voice: he had the power to destroy whatever chances I had of an academic career.

What exactly is the matter, sir? I said.

We have received information, he said, tapping the sheet of paper again, that you have been visiting prostitutes in houses of ill repute. It says that for your own good you should be expelled forthwith and sent back to Calcutta.

I was so taken aback that for a while I could only stare at him dumbly. Then I managed to say: Who has given you this information, sir?

Your own grandmother, he said, handing me the sheet of paper. You can see for yourself.

The letter was just three lines long. The writing was very shaky, but unmistakably my grandmother’s. It said that she knew I visited whores in Delhi, that she had spoken to me and I had shown no signs of repentance, and that as a schoolteacher herself she thought that my college, if it had any self-respect at all, would see to it that I was sent home.

I was so shaken by the sight of her resurrected hand, reaching out to me after her death, as it had all through my childhood, that it was some time before I could collect myself enough to offer an explanation to the dean. I told him, looking him in the eye, that in all my years in college I had visited no place more disreputable than the Chanakya cinema and the Khyber restaurant at Kashmeri Gate; I said that my grandmother had been very ill indeed when she wrote that letter, and that in her illness her mind had become prey to delusions.

The situation was so fantastic that soon the dean lost faith in the letter and let me go. But he warned me that he would be keeping an eye on me during my last few weeks in college.

When I got up to go, I cast a glance at the letter. She had even written the date in the top right-hand corner, as she always did. Later, thinking back, tallying the dates, I realised that she had written the letter the day before she died.

I have never understood how she learnt of the women I had visited a couple of times, with my friends; nor do I know how she saw that I was in love with Ila so long before I dared to admit it to myself.

At some time late in my first autumn in London, when the trees of the Embankment were already bare, I realised I could no longer hide the truth from myself.

I would find myself wandering through Soho or around Trafalgar Square, and I would pretend to myself that I was walking for the mere pleasure of it, discovering the city. But soon I would find myself walking along the Embankment. I would lean on the parapet and gaze across the dark breadth of the Thames at the concrete hillocks of the South Bank; I would stop to run my hands over the cast-iron lamps, over the pouting lips of the moulded fish, and often, to my surprise, I would discover that somewhere at the back of my throat I was softly humming the tune of an old Hindi film song – beqaraar karke hame yun na jaiyen … I don’t know why it was that tune: I hadn’t seen the film, nor ever possessed the record, but it was always that one and no other. It would appear unannounced, for no apparent reason, and though it was always the same tune there were times when it sounded quite different. At times it was a happy, lilting kind of tune, and then, whether it was a wet, cold night or a cool, crisp one, I would find myself marching cheerfully along the deserted Embankment, singing out loud when the cars went roaring past me in packs. I would walk across to the other pavement, take a pencil out of my pocket and hold it beside me so that I could hear it clicking against the railings as I walked, drumming in time with the tune. But there were times when the tune became eerily sombre: I would find myself shying away from the patches of shadow on the pavements, and the dark masses of the tall buildings that lined the Embankment would begin to seem somehow menacing. I would try to keep to the pools of light under the lamps, and I wouldn’t look down at the silky blackness of the Thames; I would lower my head and hurry, with my chin buried in my scarf, not daring to look at the other overcoated figures walking past me. On nights like that I would pray for the tune to go away, to leave me alone. At times I would even think that I had beaten it, that it had gone: I would drop on to a bench and listen hard, to make sure, and then, invariably, I would hear it again, buzzing softly at the back of my throat.

Sooner or later on those evenings I would find myself standing at Lambeth Bridge. I would look across the bridge at the weathered red-brick castellations of the Palace, and in genuine surprise I would say to myself: Why, here I am, at Lambeth Bridge. Since I’ve come this far I may as well walk to Stockwell and visit Ila.

Then I would walk half-way across the bridge, lean on the railing and think of reasons why I should not go on: that it was too far, the rain would get worse before I got there, I had already been there twice that week, Ila wouldn’t be at home anyway … I would carry on this argument with perfect disingenuousness, as though I were merely eavesdropping on a conversation between two old friends. All the while the sceptical part of my mind, the part that knew perfectly well why I happened to be on Lambeth Bridge, would be silent: I would not allow myself to listen to it.

But once I had decided – especially if it happened to be after a period in which I had successfully kept myself away from Stockwell for more than three days – a great weight would lift from my heart, and I would hurry across the bridge and walk, faster and faster, till I was almost running, all the way to her house in Stockwell.

As I walked, to drown the buzzing of that tune, I would play with numbers in my head. I would try to work out how many miles I had walked and how much time it had taken me: six and a half miles, I would say to myself, or 11,440 yards, or, better still, 34,320 feet, or 10,461 metres. The numbers would occupy and exhaust my mind so that I could abandon myself to the marvellous happiness that was driving me on, faster and faster, towards Stockwell.

Later, sometimes I would look at the advertisements for diamonds and jewellery in the British Sunday magazines, or I would read their accounts of film-star romances, and I would wonder why it so happens that it is in this state, the state we call love, that people are most driven to enumerate and quantify, when the state itself, or so those very magazines tell us, is the obverse, the antithesis, of the notions of number and quantity. I would wonder what the circumstances could be that would prompt a man to tell a journalist exactly how much money he had spent, down to the last pound or dollar, on buying a car or an island for the woman he loved; I would wonder why the advertisements hinted so carefully at the exact price of the jewellery they urged men to buy for their girlfriends and lovers; why a girl had attempted suicide exactly nine times to get back the man she loved; why I had been driven to count all the yards that I had walked when I went to see Ila. I could think of no answer, except that it is because that state, love, is so utterly alien to that other idea without which we cannot live as human beings – the idea of justice. It is only because love is so profoundly the enemy of justice that our minds, shrinking in horror from its true nature, try to tame it by uniting it with its opposite: it is as though we say to ourselves – he bought her a diamond worth exactly so much, or she gave up a career that would have earned her precisely so much, in the hope that if we apply all the metaphors of normality, that if we heap them high enough, we shall, in the end, be able to approximate that state metaphorically. And yet between that state and its metaphors there is no more connection than there is between a word, such as mat, and the thing itself: they are utterly indifferent to each other, so that we may heap the metaphors – the diamonds, the suicides, the miles, the suffering – till the end of our abilities, and yet find no trace at all of the state itself. And equally we may find the opposite.

Perhaps those miles and yards were my own living metaphors, my attempt to claim a share of justice. For I had already thrown everything else I had on the scales; not insubstantial things, after all, for I was a human being too, with my own worth and weight, not ugly, not without substance, educated, and with other qualities too, like patience and good humour – what more could a human being have, in fairness – I had thrown in all of that, everything I had, and by not so much as a tremor had the scales acknowledged their weight.

That was why I walked those miles, in the hope that the sheer force of those numbers would speak to Ila, tell her all the things I dared not say for fear of losing even her friendship; that somehow the weight of those accumulated yards would tip those inscrutable scales towards me. But when Ila did happen to be at home, she would open the door and say: Nice to see you, come in, but I hope you’re not expecting any dinner, and I would tell her, smiling brightly: I’ve walked eight miles, it took me exactly two hours and ten minutes, and she would arch her eyebrows in surprise and say: Why? Is it some kind of health kick?

The people Ila shared her house with spent their evenings in the kitchen whenever they were in. They consisted of a bearded Irish computer scientist, a girl from Leicestershire who had dropped out in her second year at the North London Polytechnic to work with the Fourth International, and a morose young Ghanaian who was very active in the Anti-Nazi League. They would spend their evenings sitting around the deal table in the kitchen drinking mugs of tea, or sometimes, when they could afford it, beer. Their conversations were almost always severely practical. For hours on end they would argue about which kind of pen was better for drawing posters with, or over how they ought to make the arrangements for lunch or tea at their next picket. There were no explosive arguments nor any shouting as there would have been among like-minded people in Calcutta or Delhi. When they did argue, it was usually about small points of tactics and strategy, and the arguments usually consisted of a series of increasingly oblique statements, loaded with references to a long history of personal political decisions. These dialogues were so controlled at first I did not recognise them as arguments at all. But in fact there was a frightening quality about them; a seriousness of intent that was all the more deadly for being so quiet.

Ila often seemed to be as ignorant and uninterested in the backgrounds of those arguments as I was. Indeed it was soon evident to me that she played a bit role in their collective political life: it was often apparent that they had made their decisions long before they asked her for her opinion. They were all clearly very fond of her, but they seemed to regard her as a kind of guest, a decoration almost. Nor did they seem to resent in her the signs of cosmopolitanism they were always so quick to criticise in themselves and their other comrades. In a way they were proud of her: they would often ask about her family’s wealth, how many servants she had ‘at home’ in India, and so on, and they would listen intently as she told them – with many exaggerations, usually. They would talk of her as ‘our own upper-class Asian Marxist’. This seemed to please them: they had an acute sense of history and perhaps they saw Ila as a link with the Fabians. Or perhaps the thought that their lives and ideas might have some influence on another continent was some compensation for their impotence at home. At any rate they, who were not otherwise friendly people, were tolerant, even encouraging, towards Ila’s friends. As a rule they were dismissive, even suspicious of outsiders. But ‘Ila’s friends’ were a special case: even when they did not pay them much attention, they seemed quite happy to have them sitting around their kitchen table.

Often I would find Nick Price in the kitchen when I arrived. He was always very well dressed. I would ask him the secret of his sartorial success and he would explain that his shirt was from Turnbull & Asser and his jacket from Armani, and smile when he saw that the names meant nothing to me. He should have seemed incongruous in that kitchen, but in fact he fitted in much better there than I did. There was a practical, do-it-yourself side to his nature which meshed neatly with the ambience of that house: he was genuinely interested in poster paints and printing ink. From their conversations I discovered that he often spent the whole day in their house – he certainly had the time, for he had still not taken, or found, a job. He would run the occasional errand for them and help them at whatever they were doing – like proof-correcting pamphlets and painting posters. He even went to their demonstrations and stood with them in their pickets. I gathered that he had become something of a minor celebrity among them, because he always went dressed in a suit and a tie, and so, since he made a good impression, he was often deputed to deal with the police when there was trouble. And since politics, in any sense that I could understand, was never talked about in that house, there was never any reason for him to disagree with them anyway.

On one such evening, when I had walked all the way from Charing Cross to Stockwell, Ila looked at me, sitting beside Nick, and wrinkled her nose at my grubby blue anorak and fading corduroy jeans. She said: We should do something about getting you some proper clothes.

I reminded her that my fellowship, while perfectly adequate for my needs, wasn’t quite generous enough to provide me with a new wardrobe, but she shrugged aside my objections and said: I know just the place where you could do your shopping.


You wouldn’t know it, she said. It’s a place where there are lots of cheap retail shops run by Indians and Bangladeshis.

Where is it? I said.

It’s a place called Brick Lane, she said.

She cut herself short when she saw my face.

What’s the matter? she said, raising her eyebrows. Have you heard of it?

I shook my head quickly and asked her when we could go. We arranged to meet two days later at lunch-time, in the Kembles Head.

I arrived late. I saw Ila at once, in the far corner of the room. And then I saw Nick, sitting beside her. He was wearing a tweed jacket and silk tie, she a pullover and jeans. She said something to him, but he was reading the Financial Times, which he had folded into a small square. He turned away from her, very slightly, and she slumped back again, raising her face to the ceiling. They were sitting apart, a good distance from each other, at different ends of a long wooden seat. They could have been strangers – it ought to have been easy to take them for that – but I could tell at once, from the way the crowd had arranged itself around them, that even they could sense that the two of them had come there together. I wanted to stand at the bar and watch them, not for a minute but for hours; I wanted to learn the language of their affinity. But the man behind the bar wanted to know what I would like, and by the time the warm, tawny beer had trickled out of the brass spigot and filled my glass, Ila had already seen me.

Where have you been? said Ila when I went up to their table, and Nick shook his hair out of his eyes with a toss of his fine golden head and held out his hand, smiling. I began to recite an explanation, but Ila interrupted me.

Nick decided to come along too, she said, with a faint trace of apology in her voice. Can you guess why?

She looked at me solemnly for a moment and then her face crumpled into laughter. She said: He’s thinking of going into business. The import-export business – trading in ready-made Indian garments.

She made room for me beside her and for the next quarter of an hour Nick explained the details of his scheme. I was barely listening, but I understood that it had something to do with Ila and her family investing some money at the Indian end and Nick doing the wholesaling in London.

Ila must have noticed that I was bored, for after a while she cut him short and said to me: You’re really excited, aren’t you? About going to Brick Lane?

I nodded and, watching me curiously, she said: Why? What’s so interesting about Brick Lane?

I’ll tell you when we get there, I said. Come on, let’s go.

The first surprise that was waiting for me was that it wasn’t a lane at all. I had thought of it as long, narrow and curving, a little like the lanes I had seen in Oxford – flanked by grey stone walls that had the ends of creepers trailing over them – but with cars and neon lights, of course, as well as a few boutiquey shops. I’d thought of small, red-brick houses jostling together, cramped, but each with its own little handkerchief-garden and flowers on its window sills.

I had no means of recognising the place I saw; it did not belong anywhere I had ever been. I walked ahead of Ila and Nick in a trance, looking at the Bengali neon signs above the shops that lined the lane, staring into display windows lined with the latest Bengali film magazines, reading the posters that had been slapped on those walls of aged London brick – stern grey anti-racism posters issued by an iridescent spectrum of the left-wing, buried now under a riot of posters advertising the very newest Hindi films – listening to quick exchanges in a dozen dialects of Bengali as people hurried past me, laughing and chattering, with their fingers curled into the sleeves of their anoraks, like shoppers at Gariahat on a cold winter’s morning. I stopped to sniff the fragrance of rosogollas wafting out of a sweet-shop and waved to Ila and Nick to hurry. She laughed when she saw me gazing greedily into the shop. Exactly like that sweet-shop at the corner of Gole Park, she said, isn’t it. And so it was, with exactly the same laminated counters and plastic tables; exactly the same except that it was built into a terrace of derelict eighteenth-century London houses, and there was no paan-shop at the corner, and no Nathu Chaubey, but instead, as Nick pointed out, hanging over it was the great steeple of Hawksmoor’s Christchurch Spitalfields.

You see, Ila said to me, laughing. It’s all new to you, I’ve always told you. You know nothing about London.

Nick pointed at a large chapel-like building with a sign that said: London Jamme Masjid.

Do you see that mosque? he said. That used to be a synagogue when this place was a Jewish area – up until the war and after.

That was when your uncle lived here! I said. Your uncle Alan.

My uncle? he said in surprise. Did he live here?

Yes, I said. I’ll show you where he lived.

I quickened my pace and walked ahead of them, looking up at the street signs on the walls at the corners. I led them past a great brewery that was leaking the smell of fresh beer in dribbles into the lane, like a pub on a Saturday evening, under a railway bridge to the far side of Brick Lane. The lane was quiet here; there was none of the noise and bustle that we had passed through. Most of the shops along the pavement were boarded up or abandoned, the glass in the windows broken so that we could look in at the bowels of the crumbling buildings, upon wildernesses of shattered plywood partitions, broken bottles and decaying cardboard boxes. Most of the shops that were still in business were selling Indian-made leather clothes, of the kind that are hawked to tourists at Janpath in Delhi – black leather jackets and suede handbags and belts. Eventually I found the street sign I had been looking for.

There, I said to Nick, pointing triumphantly at the house on the corner. That’s where your uncle Alan lived at the beginning of the war.

His face lengthened in fastidious disbelief as he examined its crumbling masonry and the signboard of the Taj Travel Agency on the ground floor.

Look, he said, you’ve got it wrong. That couldn’t have been it. He wasn’t poor, you know – my grandfather had left him quite a lot of money. He could have lived anywhere he liked.

He frowned in a way that seemed to suggest that I had deliberately cast a slur on his family. I shrugged: I could not see any point in explaining that perhaps he had lived there not because he had to but because he wanted to; that perhaps he had preferred to spend his money on obscure little journals rather than cars and houses. Even I found people like that hard to believe in.

There were only two big windows on the first floor of the house. One of them was boarded over with wooden planks. But the other was open, and through it we could see the edges of brightly coloured curtains, made of the kind of synthetic cloth that looks like velvet.

That was the window of Dan’s bedroom, I decided. It was easy to see how the window panes might have been blacked out with ink-blackened newspapers. It was this window that Dan had opened that September night in 1940, when he’d grown tired of trying to sleep on the mattresses below the stairs, with the others. He was something of an insomniac and sleep always came harder when he was not in his own bed. It was much safer below the stairs, of course, but now he needed sleep. He had hardly slept at all that week and he had to get back to work at the press tomorrow, as usual.

But it wasn’t any easier upstairs. The drone of the plans seemed much louder up there. And every time a bomb exploded somewhere in the neighbourhood, a screw that had come loose in his steel bed would rattle eerily. He’d told the others about it and one morning they had helped him take the old bed apart, but they hadn’t found it. It was still there, rattling away. He climbed out of bed, lit a cigarette, and opened the window just a little, making sure that the glowing tip of his cigarette was well hidden behind his back. The fresh air was a relief for the night was warm and still.

Downstairs they were all asleep. They had had a tiring day, for they had gone to a demonstration outside the Savoy Hotel, to demand that the hotel’s cellars be turned into an air-raid shelter for East Enders. They had come back to Brick Lane flushed with triumph, glad they’d done something. But then, later, when they were eating their dinner, Dan had turned on the radio and caught the National Prayer Day service. They’d listened in silence for a moment, and then Francesca had begun to cry, so Dan had turned it off. And now the three of them were fast asleep, on the mattresses they had laid out below the stairs when the bombing began.

Dan flinched as a high-pitched metallic shriek tore the air, but then it went suddenly silent, so he relaxed and drew on his cigarette. If it had happened a little later in the Blitz, when the city had developed its collective wisdom about bombs, he would have known, because of that silence, that it was going to be close. He would have thrown himself flat on the floor, and if he had he might have lived, even though the bomb hit the pavement just in front of his window, carving out a ten-foot deep pit, and pulling down a large part of the front of the house with it – that part where the Taj Travel Agency’s display windows now stood. But it happened too early, just a few days after the bombing had begun. He was standing right beside the window when the blast shattered the panes into fine, sharp splinters and blew them into the room like a curtain of needles. When the men from the Heavy Rescue Services carried his body out, every last inch of it was tattooed with the fine, clean perforations of the scalpel-sharp slivers of glass that had been blown through him by the blast.

The stairs were the first part of the house to collapse. The wood gave a long, wrenching groan when the blast shook the foundations. That momentary pause gave Tresawsen time to push Mike clear of the stairs and throw his body over Francesca’s. Then a beam fell upon him, killing him instantly, breaking his spine.

Francesca was pinned under his body, rigid with shock but otherwise unhurt, until they dug her out. A month later she was sent to an internment camp for enemy aliens on the Isle of Wight. Mrs Price never heard of her again. As for Mike, he survived, but he had already signed up for the Navy and he was called up a month later. In 1943 Mrs Price read his name in the casualty list in The Times and learnt later that his ship, a minesweeper, had been torpedoed by a U-boat, not far from Lowestoft harbour.

Two days later, when Tridib came to Brick Lane with Mayadebi and Mrs Price to collect Tresawsen’s things, he found a picture of the four of them together, stuck on the kitchen wall: it had been taken in a park, and all of them were laughing, Dan standing a little apart, and Mike with his arms around Tresawsen and Francesca.

How sad, said Ila. They must have been wonderfully happy in that house.

How do you know? I said, surprised by the note of certainty in her voice.

Because we live like that too, she said. In Stockwell.

I thought she was joking, at first. But when I looked at her I knew she had meant it exactly as it had sounded. I began to marvel at the easy arrogance with which she believed that her experience could encompass other moments simply because it had come later; that times and places are the same because they happen to look alike, like airport lounges.

Do you think anybody could really be ‘wonderfully happy’ at a time like that? I snapped at her. Don’t you think it possible that they quarrelled a lot – for example, over the Nazi-Soviet Pact?

Ila was unshaken, serene. Of course they quarrelled, she laughed. It’s part of the fun of living like that – you’re too earnest. And in any case, you’ve never lived like that – you can’t know.

What do you know of how I’ve lived? I said.

Well, she said quietly, I know, for example, that you’ve spent your whole life living safely in middle-class suburbs in Delhi and Calcutta. You can’t know what this kind of happiness means: there’s a joy merely in knowing that you’re a part of history. We may not achieve much in our little house in Stockwell, but we know that in the future political people everywhere will look to us – in Nigeria, India, Malaysia, wherever. It must have been the same for Tresawsen and his crowd. At least they knew they were a part of the most important events of their time – the war, and fascism, all the things you read about today in history books. That’s why there’s a kind of heroism even in their pointless deaths; that’s why they’re remembered and that’s why you’ve led us here. You wouldn’t understand the exhilaration of events like that – nothing really important ever happens where you are.

Nothing really important? I said incredulously.

Well of course there are famines and riots and disasters, she said. But those are local things, after all – not like revolutions or antifascist wars, nothing that sets a political example to the world, nothing that’s really remembered.

She seemed immeasurably distant then, in her serene confidence in the centrality and eloquence of her experience, in her quiet pity for the pettiness of lives like mine, lived out in the silence of voiceless events in a backward world.

I began to shout at her, saying that she made me laugh, she and her pathetic little welfare-pink friends, that she knew nothing at all about courage and politics, that I could understand people like Tresawsen better than she could, because I could conceive of a time when politics was serious.

Serious? she said, her voice growing sharp. God, you’re so naïve: everybody knows what those thirties lefties were doing in those bars in Berlin. They probably spent all their time fighting over each other’s beds – not the Nazi-Soviet Pact. But you wouldn’t guess because you know nothing about England.

I gave up then, for of course she was right: I knew nothing at all about England except as an invention. But still I had known people of my own age who had survived the Great Terror in the Calcutta of the sixties and seventies, and I thought I had at least a spectator’s knowledge of their courage, something that Ila, with her fine clothes and manicured hands, would never understand.

And yet that was not the truth either, for I had been with Ila once when she had come out of her hairdresser’s shop, her hair all new and curled, and marched straight off to Brixton with her little crew of friends, to confront a gang of jack-booted racists armed with bicycle chains.

As for me, I knew I would not have dared.

Nick was bored by our pointless argument.

Come on, he said. Let’s go and have a look at that house.

He led us across the road and pushed open the greasy glass doors of the Taj Travel Agency. The door opened into a very large, dank room, so large that it was evident at once that they had torn down a wall and joined two rooms. A long Formica-topped table ran down one side of the room, behind which sat a row of girls, some in churidars and some in skirts. A little bell pealed tinnily as soon as Nick pushed the door open. One of the girls frowned at us as we walked in and gestured at the chairs in front of her desk. But before we could sit down a middle-aged man in a brown suit called out in Bengali from the other end of the room: Send them here, Zeenat, I’ll deal with them.

He examined us as we walked up to his desk, and when we had sat down he said expressionlessly, in a glottal London voice: Wha’ can I do for you?

Ila, instinctively adopting the manner of the Indian grande dame, said: We’d like a little information please.

The man behind the desk was not impressed. He looked her over, and said: How many of you travelling? We only do groups.

We’re going to Calcutta, I said to him in Bengali, smiling my most ingratiating smile. Could you give us some idea …?

All business in English here, he snapped at me. And I can’t tell you anything until you let me know how many of you are travelling.

You’re not being very friendly, Nick said. Are you now?

Not my job to be friendly, he said.

Tell me, I said quietly. Was there ever a staircase in here? What? the man exploded.

Just wanted to know whether there was ever a staircase in here that was blown up by a bomb.

Get out, he said. You’ve wasted enough of my time.

Now look here, Nick began.

If you don’t look sharp, he said, I’m going to throw you out.

I don’t like this place, Ila said loftily. I’m going anyway.

We got up together and walked to the door while the man glared at our backs.

Bet he’s running a sweat-shop upstairs, Nick whispered loudly as we were going out.

I heard that, the man bellowed, but before he could say anything else we were outside. When we had crossed the road, I turned back to take a last look at the house, trying to see it with a great hole gouged out of its side, as Tridib had.

Nick stopped too, and looking back at the Taj Travel Agency he said: You’ve got to hand it to people like that though: they come over with next to nothing, and before you know it they’ve built up thriving little businesses. Now if I could get my hands on a little capital, I’d go into the futures market. Friends of mine have made killings there – it’s all a question of knowing what to buy when.

For once I allowed myself to show my irritation.

Shouldn’t you think of getting a job first? I said. Before you start making a fortune on the futures market?

He took my question seriously, or at least he pretended to. The trouble is, he said, there’s not enough money in jobs here. It’s stupid really. Chartered accountants have to start at fifteen thousand pounds or something. In America or Kuwait they‘d get two or three times as much.

So, then, why did you give up your job in Kuwait? I asked.

Got sick of it, he said, wrinkling his nose. It wasn’t really a properly professional outfit. Outdated management practices. I thought of setting up something on my own there, but the trouble is, you have to have an Arab business partner, and they always interfere.

So you mean you just chucked up your job one fine morning and came away? I said. I must have sounded sceptical, for he turned to give me a long, cool look.

Yes, he said. That’s what I did.

Really? I said. Well if I were you, I’d think of getting a job before I thought of the futures market.

Abruptly, Ila thrust a hand through Nick’s arm. I stole a quick glance at her: her lips were white; she was very angry.

Nick and I have to go now, she said. I think you’re old enough to do your own shopping.

She turned on her heel and led him away, leaving me standing where I was, speechless. After they’d gone a hundred yards or so, she left him and came running back towards me.

I don’t like you being rude to my friends, she said, when we were face to face. You’d better telephone before you come to Stockwell again. I may not be in.

A fortnight passed before I saw Ila again.

We met on Christmas Eve at 44 Lymington Road; Mrs Price had invited us to join her and Nick and May at a small family dinner.

Ila came very late. She burst in upon us when Mrs Price and May were about to serve dinner. She was smiling, radiant, dressed in knee-length leather boots and a short skirt. She said a quick word of apology to everyone in turn, and to my relief, when she came to me, she was smiling.

Where have you been all these days? she whispered. Why haven’t you come to see me?

Then she turned away to admire the table. It had been beautifully laid: the silver and glass sparkled in the candlelight and a huge bowl of fruit glowed gently in the centre of the table. After we had sat down and May had served us our soup and Nick had poured us wine, Ila, looking as though she would burst, clapped her hands together and cried: I’ve got good news. You’ll never believe it.

My heart went cold as I watched her turn her glowing face towards Nick.

I’ve got a job, she cried.

Wonderful! said May. With whom?

With the Save the Children Fund, said Ila. It won’t pay much, but it’s something.

Breathless with relief, I said: But I thought you hated children.

Well I don’t actually have to see the little creatures, she said. I only have to save them, and that’s not too hard if all it means is filling in ledgers and pushing files.

We laughed, Nick proposed a toast and we all drained our glasses. Then Mrs Price raised her glass shakily, her small, lined face wrinkling into a smile, and said: Since we’re more or less evenly matched here, if you don’t count an old biddy like me, I think we ought to drink a toast to Mr Justice Chandrashekhar Datta-Chaudhuri, and my father, Lionel Tresawsen, for we wouldn’t be here together now if it weren’t for them.

We raised our glasses again, but solemnly this time. Nick drained his glass again, and then, twirling it between his fingers, slurring his words slightly, he said: Now Grandpa Tresawsen had a good time. How wonderful it must have been to go around the world like that: like some great Dickensian show on a stage. There’s never been anything like it before and there’ll never be anything like it again.

He turned to me and shrugged, making a rueful face.

And what did I get? he said. Bloody old Kuwait. That’s what comes of being born too late.

Well, May said lightly, reaching for our plates; I think you might allow for the possibility that grandfather Tresawsen would have made a little more of Kuwait than you did.

Kuwait! Nick snorted. You wouldn’t say that if you knew what it’s like out there. It’s a bubble that’s going to burst any day now. That’s why I got out while there was still something to get out of.

May banged the plates down on the table and looked at him for what seemed like a very long time. Then she leant towards him and said: Nick, isn’t it time you stopped lying about this Kuwait business? I was willing to go along with it when it was just a lie meant for other people. But you’ve begun to believe it yourself, and you shouldn’t, you really shouldn’t. You ought to be able to stand up and tell the truth; you were brought up to tell the truth, just as I was. You should be able to look people in the eye and tell them what you told us: you ought to be able to say that your boss didn’t like you, that he concocted charges of embezzlement against you. If he did concoct them, that is.

Nick stood up, swaying on his feet. He threw his napkin on the table and hissed at May.

You’re a liar and a bitch, he said. It doesn’t surprise me that you never got married. Who’d want to put up with that fake honesty and those staring eyes every day at breakfast?

Then he turned to Mrs Price and said that he was going up to his room; that he didn’t want any dinner. But Mrs Price was fast asleep, with her chin buried in her neck. He marched out of the room without another word, and a moment later Ila ran out after him.

May did not seem to notice; she was staring blankly into the flame of a candle. Oh God, she whispered. What have I done?

Nick and Ila came back together, a quarter of an hour later. We woke Mrs Price and May brought in the turkey and carved it. Mrs Price talked to me for a while about Calcutta, but nobody else said a single word. When we had finished our turkey, May blew out the candles as though she were sleep-walking through a ritual, and brought in the Christmas pudding and lit it. But only I applauded when the brandy flared up into a clean blue flame.

After we had eaten our portions and cleared the plates away, Mrs Price led us back to her drawing room and poured out glasses of brandy for all of us. I emptied my glass as quickly as I could and got up to go.

Thank you very much, I said to Mrs Price, trying not to sound awkward. It’s been a wonderful evening. A real English Christmas – nothing could have been better. It was lovely. But I’d better go now, or I’ll miss the last tube home.

She smiled, squinting at me short-sightedly, and stretched out her hand. I’m glad you enjoyed yourself, she said. You must come again.

While I was fetching my scarves and overcoat, May went to the window and looked out at the garden.

I don’t think you’ll be able to go just yet, she said. Have you seen what it’s like outside? There’s a blizzard blowing out there. You’ll freeze.

I went to stand beside her, wrapped up in my scarves and overcoat. I could not see very far: there where whirlpools of snow blowing against the window.

You’d better stay, said May. I think we’ll all have to stay. I can’t face going back to Islington in a storm.

She looked at me, pleading, as though to tell me that she wouldn’t dare stay if I went.

All right, I said. I’ll stay.

But where will I put all of you? said Mrs Price. There won’t be room for two people in your old room, May. Nor will there in Nick’s.

I know! May said brightly. The two of them can sleep in the cellar – on the old camp beds. There’s that old heater down there, too, so they won’t be cold, and Nick and I can give them our sleeping bags. They ought to be quite comfortable.

That’s fine by me, said Ila, giving me a tight conspiratorial little smile. I nodded my assent, my heart bursting with hope.

Well then, you arrange it, said Mrs Price. As for me. I’m eighty years old, and I’m going to bed.

May hurried out of the room and we followed. She threw open a door that was tucked away behind the suitcase and switched on a light. It smelt slightly damp, but not musty: it was much cleaner than I had expected. There were stacks of paperbacks in one corner of the cellar, and suitcases and trunks were piled up high in another. May showed us the camp beds, tucked away behind the suitcases, and Nick and I dragged them out. It took us a while before we got the knack of opening them. But once they had been laid out properly they looked quite comfortable. Nick and Ila went upstairs and fetched sleeping bags, towels and nightclothes and soon the cellar began to look warm and inviting. Then May and Nick said goodnight and left.

Ila turned to look at me after they were gone.

So here we are, she said, smiling. We’re back under our old table, playing houses.

I nodded and threw myself down on the edge of one of the beds. My knees were shaking and the palms of my hands were wet. Ila turned her back on me and pulled off her jacket and sweater, talking in a low voice all the while, about May and how she had ruined the evening.

She was in a thin blouse now; I could see the outline of her breasts and even the shadow of the mole above her nipple.

It’s hot in here actually, she said, undoing the buttons of her blouse. I don’t think I’m going to need any nightclothes.

She turned to reach for a towel and her eyes fell on me, crouched on the edge of the camp bed.

Why, you’re staring, she laughed in surprise. I’ll have to turn my back on you again.

She turned away and shrugged off her blouse. I could smell her now: she smelt of soap and fresh sweat. I could see the soft skin of her waist curving gently into her belt.

She wrapped the towel around herself and kicked off her skirt. I could see the slanted grain of the down running down her legs. At that moment, draped in a towel, from her armpits to her thighs, her weight resting on one leg, her skin shimmering like soft, dark silk, she seemed to belong to a wholly different species of being from the women my friends and I had visited – more perfect than any human form could possibly be.

I could not sit still any more. I stole up behind her and put my hand on her bare shoulder.

Take your hand away, she giggled. It’s cold.

She spun around, and I don’t know what she saw on my face but the laughter died on her lips.

Oh, what’s happened? she cried. Why are you looking at me like that?

She stepped back to look at me and then she ran into my arms and hugged me.

You poor man, she said.

Her voice was full of pity.

You poor, poor man.

She reached up and ran a hand over my face. It was only then that I felt the tears running down my cheeks.

I didn’t know, she said. You were always the brother I never had. I’m sorry. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have behaved like this. Really, believe me.

It doesn’t matter, I said.

She came and sat beside me and ran a finger over my neck and back. I’m sorry, she said. I’m really, truly sorry.

You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, I said. It’s no one’s fault but mine.

We heard the sound of a door shutting somewhere upstairs. Ila leapt to her feet.

I’ve got to go now, for a bit, she said, her voice light with relief. I’m going up to have a chat with Nick; he’s very upset.

I felt the warmth of her body over mine as she leant to kiss me on my chin.

Go to sleep, she said. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.

A moment later I heard her tiptoeing softly up the staircase.

I lay on my back, staring up at the ceiling, and as the hours passed I saw Ila again and again as she was when she stepped out of that car at Gole Park, eighteen years ago; on that morning when she wrenched me into adulthood by demonstrating for the first time, and for ever the inequality of our needs. And when she did not come back to the cellar that night, I knew she had taken my life hostage yet again; I knew that a part of my life as a human being had ceased; that I no longer existed, but as a chronicle.