Coming Home

In 1962, the year I turned ten, my grandmother retired, upon reaching the age of sixty. She had taught in a girls’ high school since 1936. When she’d first joined, the school had had only fifty pupils and the premises had consisted of two sheds with tin roofs. During the monsoons she had often had to teach standing in ankle-deep water – once, or so she claimed, it had been so bad that a girl had actually managed to spear a fish with a compass during a geometry lesson. But over the next two decades the school had grown into a successful institution and had acquired a big building near Deshapriya Park. For the last six years before she retired, my grandmother had been its headmistress.

She had been looking forward to her retirement although she’d grown very attached to the school in the twenty-seven years she had spent there. But she no longer had the stomach for staff-room intrigues and battles with the board, she would tell my parents; she was growing old, she had earned her rest. And besides, my father’s career was going well, so she had no real worries left.

There was a farewell ceremony on her last day at school, to which my parents and I were invited. It was a touching ceremony in a solemn kind of way. The Calcutta Corporation sent a representative and so did the Congress and the CPI. There were many speeches and my grandmother was garlanded by a girl from every class. Then the head girl, a particular favourite of hers, unveiled the farewell present the girls had bought for her by subscription. It was a large marble model of the Taj Mahal; it had a bulb inside and could be lit up like a table lamp. My grandmother made a speech too, but she couldn’t finish it properly, for she began to cry before she got to the end of it and had to stop to wipe away her tears. I turned away when she began dabbing at her eyes with a huge green handkerchief, and discovered, to my surprise, that many of the girls sitting around me were wiping their eyes too. I was very jealous, I remember. I had always taken it for granted that it was my own special right to love her; I did not know how to cope with the discovery that my right had been infringed by a whole school.

Later we were served a meal in the staff room. The teachers had decided to give her a surprise.

When she was headmistress my grandmother had decided once that every girl who opted for home science ought to be taught how to cook at least one dish that was a speciality of some part of the country other than her own. It would be a good way, she thought, of teaching them about the diversity and vastness of the country. As a farewell surprise, the home science department had arranged for us to sample the results of my grandmother’s initiative.

After we had been led into the staff room the girls came in, one by one, bearing dishes on trays. My grandmother was delighted; she understood at once what was in store for us. She had taken so keen an interest in this project that she knew each girl’s speciality by heart. There’s Ranjana (or Matangini), she would say, clapping her hands as they entered the room – Ranjana’s doing Kerala, so avyal is what you’ll get. Or: That’s Sunayana, she’s our Tamil for this term, wait till you taste her uppama, you’ll want to be Tamil yourself. But then, in her mounting excitement, she began to make mistakes. There’s a nice Gujarati mutton korma for you, she said, and then, leaping to her feet, she cried: Ah, there’s my dear dahi-bara, you wait and see what a plump and juicy Punjabi she is!

As it happened, the girl who had made the dahi-baras was unusually fat. She burst into tears, dropped her plate of dahi-baras with a loud splash on the Sanskrit teacher’s silk sari and ran out of the room.

We ate the rest of our meal in silence.

That was the only false note, however, and afterwards, since there would not have been room for the Taj Mahal in a taxi, the headmistress lent us one of the school’s buses to go home in. The whole school lined up to wave as we steamed out through the gates. My grandmother waved back, tears streaming down her cheeks.

I remember very well the first day of her retirement. She spent the morning clearing away all the old files and papers that had accumulated in her room over the years. In the evening, we were invited to have a look. It was transformed. The files and papers were gone and the room was bathed in the gentle white glow of the Taj Mahal. She was very happy that night. At dinner, smiling her real smile, warm and impish, not the tight-lipped headmistress’s smile that we had grown accustomed to, she told us funny stories about her early days in the school.

But her happiness did not last very long.

One afternoon, a few days later, I came home from school and found that both she and my mother had locked themselves into their rooms. That night I overheard my mother complaining tearfully to my father that she’d been nagged all day long – about her cooking, her clothes, the way she kept the house. My grandmother had never paid any attention to these matters before.

Soon she began to worry about other things too.

One afternoon my friend Montu and I were walking back together from Gole Park, where the school bus had dropped us, when he stopped dead on the street and pointed up at our flat. Look! he cried, There’s a man with a turban in your grandmother’s room!

Montu was my best friend at that time. He and his family lived in the building next to ours, but our flats were so close we could talk to each other from our respective balconies. His name wasn’t really Montu. It was Mansoor and he was from Lucknow. But he had grown up in Calcutta – his father was a teacher in the Ballygunge Science College – and when they’d moved to Gole Park from Park Circus, someone had shortened his name to Montu. There was very little we did not know about each other’s families. He knew perfectly well that it was quite unprecedented for my grandmother to let any man into her room, let alone a stranger in a turban.

Liar! I said. But when I looked up, I saw he was right: there was an unmistakably turbaned head framed in my grandmother’s window.

I sprinted down the street and up the stairs, jammed my finger into our doorbell and kept it there till my mother opened the door.

Who’s that in Tha’mma’s room? I whispered breathlessly. She raised a finger to her lips and gave me a warning tap on the shoulder, but ignoring her, I ran straight into my grandmother’s room.

She was sitting on a chair in front of the open window with her head wrapped in a wet sari.

Speechless, I withdrew backwards, step by step, and fled to look for my mother.

What’s Tha’mma doing? What’s happened to her head?

My mother made me sit down and explained carefully that my grandmother had started on a course of Ayurvedic treatment and that the doctor had given her various herbal oils, with instructions to keep her head tied up all morning.

But why? I asked. What’s happened to her head?

My mother frowned at me sternly.

Tha’mma thinks she’s going bald, she said.

Then her composure dissolved and she began to laugh. She had to hold a pillow over her face so that my grandmother would not hear her.

I did not go out to our balcony that evening; I didn’t see how I could begin to explain to Montu that my grandmother had tied up her head because she was afraid of going bald.

Fortunately she did not persist with that treatment for very long. Her vanity was not really strong enough to keep her sitting in a chair for hours on end with a wet sari wrapped around her head. And in any case she had a full head of thick silver hair.

Instead she took to visiting her school again. She would leave in the afternoon and come back a couple of hours later, bursting with the horror stories she had heard in the staff room: how the new headmistress was planning to dig up the rose beds she had planted, in order, if you please, to lay down a basketball court; how the wretched woman had insulted poor Mrs So-and-so in a staff council meeting and so on. After a dozen or so of these visits the new headmistress rang my father at his office and told him that if he could not think of some way of keeping his mother away from the school she would instruct the chowkidars not to let her in the next time she came.

I do not know what my father said to her, but she did not go back again till Founder’s Day.

After that, for a few weeks, she spent all her time alone in her room. Once I pushed open her door and saw her sitting by the window staring blankly at her cupped hands. I shut the door quickly. I knew what she had in her hands. Time – great livid gouts of it; I could smell it stinking.

We left her to herself for a while and soon she began to spend more time with us. She would sit with us in the evenings with a book or a half-finished letter on her knees and talk about our relatives or my father’s work or my homework much as she used to before – but even I could tell that she was merely making an effort now; it was plain that she no longer cared.

I was puzzled and worried by the change in her and in my own way I began to make an effort to combat it. I had always resented the tyranny she had exercised over everything to do with my schoolwork, but now, of my own accord, I began to ask her for help with my homework. And on those occasions when I could persuade her to sit with me at my desk as she used to before, I found myself devising small ruses – like spilling ink on my textbooks – to keep her attention from straying. Sometimes my ploys would work and she would jerk herself out of her trance and rap me on my knuckles with the thin edge of a ruler. But then, soon, her mind would wander off again and I would sit doodling in my exercise book while she gazed out of the window. But for all that, her eyes had lost none of their glitter nor her walk its old rhythm or energy.

There’s something stirring in her head, my mother whispered to me one day, watching her with narrowed eyes. I can tell from the look on her face. We have to be careful.

1962 was an exciting year for us. A couple of months after my grandmother retired my father became General Manager of his firm. The appointment was unexpected because there were many older and more experienced executives in the firm. It was a promotion such as he had not dared dream of. But my grandmother, who had always been very quick to tell our relatives about every small sign of success in my father’s career, seemed hardly to notice this unforeseen and spectacular advancement. I heard her making a couple of calls once, but that was all. I remembered clearly how she had spent hours ringing everyone she knew when he’d been promoted from the position of Assistant Manager, Personnel, to Manager, Marketing, and I could not help noticing how brief her calls were this time.

Soon after my father’s promotion we moved to a new house on Southern Avenue, opposite the lake. To me, after our cramped little flat in Gole Park, our new house seemed immense: it seemed to have more space than we could possibly use – rooms upstairs, rooms downstairs, verandas, a garden as well as a roof big enough to play cricket on. Best of all, as far as I was concerned, I still had Montu and my other friends close at hand because our new house was only a few minutes’ walk from Gole Park.

I took it upon myself to introduce my grandmother to the house. I led her around it several times pointing out hidden lofts and unexpected doors and passageways. She made a few approbatory noises, but since they all sounded the same I knew soon enough that she was only pretending to be interested for my sake.

As we settled into our new house, it gradually became evident that the balances within our family had subtly but irrevocably shifted. In our old flat my grandmother had always been careful to maintain a titular control over the running of our household: now she didn’t seem to care any more. It was to my mother that I had to go now when I was hungry and wanted the keys to the cupboard in which the dalmuth was kept, or when I wanted money to buy peanuts at the lake.

My grandmother’s enveloping, placental presence was slowly withdrawing from the rest of the house and concentrating itself within the four walls of her room.

She had the best room in the house. It was very large and its walls were lined with tall shuttered windows. The few bits of furniture she had collected over the years seemed to be adrift in the vast spaces of that room, like leaves in a lake. I still occasionally took my homework to her. Usually when I went into her room, I would find her sitting in an armchair beside an open window – a shrunken, fragile little figure, gazing out across the lake. I would pull up a chair and sit beside her, scratching noisily in my exercise book to attract her attention.

One evening, when she seemed particularly distracted, I threw my exercise book down in frustration and cried: Tha’mma, why do you always stare out of the window like that? Don’t you like this house?

She glanced at me in surprise and patted my shoulder. It’s a nice house, she said, smiling. It’s a nice house for a child, like you.

But then a frown appeared on her forehead and she bit her lip and said: But you know, it’s very different from the house Maya and I grew up in.

How? I asked.

And so, over months of such evenings, she told me about the house she had grown up in – in Dhaka.

It was a very odd house. It had evolved slowly, growing like a honeycomb, with every generation of Boses adding layers and extensions, until it was like a huge, lop-sided step-pyramid, inhabited by so many branches of the family that even the most knowledgeable amongst them had become a little confused about their relationships.

Their own part of the house was quite large, and in my grandmother’s earliest memory it was very crowded. Theirs was a big joint family then, with everyone living and eating together: her grandparents, her parents, she and Mayadebi, her Jethamoshai – her father’s elder brother – and his family, which included three cousins of roughly her own age, as well as a couple of spinster aunts. She remembered her grandfather, although she had only been six when he died: a thin, stern-looking man with a frown etched permanently into his forehead. In his presence everyone, including her father and Jethamoshai, spoke in whispers, with their heads down and their eyes fixed firmly on the floor. But when he left the house for the district courts, where he practised as an advocate, the house would erupt with the noisy games of the five cousins. Every evening the five children would be led by their mothers into his study, where they would each have to recite their alphabets – Bengali first and then English – with their hands held out, palm downwards, and he would rap them on the knuckles with the handle of his umbrella every time they made a mistake. If they cried they were rapped on their shins.

Still, terrifying though he was, he did manage to keep the house together. After he died, Jethamoshai, as the eldest son, tried hard to step into his place, but without success. He was an odd man, Jethamoshai; in some ways he was an oddly lovable man, but in others he was even more frightening than his father. He was thinner, for one, cadaverous in fact, and he had very bright, piercing eyes, set deep in the hollows of his long, gaunt face. But he had odd ‘notions’ – he liked to eat standing up, for instance, because he thought it was better for the digestion: no animal has a better digestive system than the cow, he used to say, and look at them, they eat standing up. He was undeniably eccentric, and the children found it hard to take him altogether seriously. For example, after his father died, he insisted that the children recite the alphabet every evening to him too, while he sat exactly as his father had, with the handle of his umbrella poised over their knuckles. But although he looked every bit as stern as his father, he had an odd trick of blowing through his lips, exactly like a tired tonga-horse, when he was listening. So, often, either she or Mayadebi would burst into laughter, half-way through their recitation. This would infuriate him and he would begin to pound out a drum roll of raps on their knuckles, whereupon they would begin to scream their lungs out, and then he would lose his temper altogether and start kicking them in the shins. The children usually enjoyed this production hugely because Jethamoshai wasn’t really strong enough to hurt them, and besides his face became very funny when he was really angry. But of course their mother would be furious: she didn’t understand that he didn’t mean badly – it was just that he had no control over his temper at all. Often, after he had lost his temper, he would secretly buy the children halwa and shandesh as a kind of apology. But their mother didn’t know this, and within a month or so of her father-in-law’s death she was no longer on speaking terms with Jethamoshai and his wife and family.

It did not take long for the quarrels to get worse. The two women began to suspect each other of favouring their own children above the rest, of purloining the best little tid-bits of food for them from the common larder and so on. In the privacy of their rooms they would both berate their husbands, calling them unmanly and incapable of protecting the interests of their own children. Soon the two brothers were quarrelling too. And since they were both lawyers their quarrels took a peculiarly vicious, legalistic form, in which very little was actually said. Instead, they would send each other notes on legal stationery. My grandmother, since she was the elder, would always have to carry these, and she came to dread those missions for she would have to wait beside Jethamoshai’s chair while he read them over and over again until the veins in his forehead began to throb with anger.

Those were terrible days for the children – spent cowering, in the background, listening, while their mothers quarrelled in whispers behind locked doors or lay crying in their bedrooms. When the cousins played now, it had to be in secret so that their parents would not see them together.

Soon things came to such a pass that they decided to divide the house with a wooden partition wall: there was no other alternative. But the building of the wall proved to be far from easy because the two brothers, insisting on their rights with a lawyer-like precision, demanded that the division be exact down to the minutest detail. When the wall was eventually built, they found that it had ploughed right through a couple of doorways so that no one could get through them any more; it had also gone through a lavatory, bisecting an old commode. The brothers even partitioned their father’s old nameplate. It was divided down the middle by a thin white line, and their names were inscribed on the two halves – of necessity in letters so tiny that nobody could read them.

They sprang from notoriously litigious stock.

They had all longed for the house to be divided when the quarrels were at their worst, but once it had actually happened and each family had moved into their own part of it, instead of the peace they had so much looked forward to, they found that a strange, eerie silence had descended on the house. It was never the same again after that; the life went out of it. It was worse for my grandmother than Mayadebi, for she could remember a time when it had been otherwise. She would often look across at her cousins on the other side and wonder about them, but so much bitterness lay between the two families now that she could not bring herself to actually speak to them.

In later years it always made my grandmother a little nervous when she heard people saying: We’re like brothers. What does that mean? she would ask hurriedly. Does that mean you’re friends? As for herself, having learnt the meaning of brotherhood very early, she had not dared to take the risk of providing my father with one.

And yet, those very women, my grandmother’s mother and her aunt, the accumulated spleen of whose quarrels had probably shortened their lives by several years, became close, though silent, allies when it came to the business of their daughter’s marriages. For example, their aunt played a central role in arranging Mayadebi’s marriage to the Shaheb. It was she who first learnt of it when old Mr Justice Datta-Chaudhuri came to Dhaka on tour with his son (then an eminently eligible stripling of eighteen), and since she had already married off her own daughters, she made sure that the old judge got to hear of Mayadebi (whose beauty was already famous in the city). Once that had been accomplished the rest was easy, for their horoscopes, as well as every other circumstance, were eminently well suited. The pact was quickly sealed, and within six months Mayadebi was married. When she left, their mother gave her strict instructions not to forget to send her aunt half a dozen saris from Calcutta.

But there, at home in Dhaka, they never so much as exchanged a single word across that wall.

As for my grandmother, she had been married off four years before Mayadebi. My grandfather was an engineer with the railways, in Burma; my grandmother spent the first twelve years of her married life in a succession of railway colonies in towns with fairy-tale names like Moulmein and Mandalay. But later, all she remembered of them was hospitals and railway stations and Bengali societies: to her, nothing else in that enchanted pagoda-land had seemed real enough to remember.

My father was born in Mandalay, in 1925. My grandmother used to take him back to Dhaka every year for a couple of months to stay with her parents. Their part of the house was much emptier now because her cousins (of whom there were three, two boys and a girl) had scattered to various parts of the subcontinent. After Mayadebi got married and went to live in Calcutta only those four elderly people – her uncle, aunt and her parents – were left in the house. They had very little to quarrel about now, but the passage of time had in no way diminished that ancient bitterness. My grandmother did what she could to make them forget the past, but they had grown so thoroughly into the habits engendered by decades of hostility that none of them wanted to venture out into the limbo of reconciliation. They liked the wall now; it had become a part of them.

When my father was about six, both my grandmother’s parents died, within a few months of each other. My grandmother returned to Dhaka only twice after that, and then only to make sure that the rooms she and Mayadebi had inherited were still intact. On both occasions she decided to go across and talk to her uncle and aunt, but the house was full of painful memories now and both times she fled back to Mandalay after spending barely a day in Dhaka.

And then, in 1935, my grandfather caught a chill while supervising the construction of a culvert somewhere in the Arakan Hills. He died of pneumonia before they could bring him back to Mandalay.

My grandmother was thirty-two when he died. She had no savings and she had never worked in her life but that merely made her all the more determined to see her son through school and college. Luckily she still possessed a scroll to prove that she had been awarded a bachelor’s degree in history by Dhaka University. On the strength of that, a sympathetic railway official managed to arrange a job for her in a school in Calcutta – the school she was to work in for the next twenty-seven years.

She had no time to go back to Dhaka in the next few years. And then, in 1947, came Partition, and Dhaka became the capital of East Pakistan. There was no question of going back after that. She had never had any news of Jethamoshai and her aunt again.

In the years that followed, living in Calcutta in a one-room tenement in Bhowanipore, she would often think back on Dhaka – the old house, her parents, Jethamoshai, her childhood – all the things people think about when they know that the best parts of their lives are already over.

But do you know? she said, looking out across the lake, half smiling. In all that time there that was only thing I ever really regretted about Dhaka.

What? I asked.

She smiled: That I never got to see the upside-down house.

What was that? I said.

She began to laugh.

When the house was divided, she said, Maya was very little and she didn’t remember the other side at all. So, later, often, to frighten her when she wasn’t going to sleep or something like that, I would make up stories about that part of the house. Everything’s upside-down over there, I’d tell her; at their meals they start with the sweets and end with the dal, their books go backwards and end at the beginning, they sleep under their beds and eat on the sheets, they cook with jhatas and sweep with their ladles, they write with umbrellas and go walking with pencils … And Maya grew to like these stories so much that every night I’d have to make up a new one or she wouldn’t go to sleep. One night I’d tell her how today Jethamoshai had been brought his tea in a cup and he’d lost his temper and blown through his lips and shouted: Why did you bring it to me like that? Don’t you know that tea is meant to be drunk out of a bucket? And the next night I’d have to make up a new one, so I’d say: Today Jethamoshai screamed at one of our cousins because he’d forgotten to bathe in the kitchen. Nonsense like that. And when I’d finished, I’d make a ghastly face and say: If you don’t go to sleep right this very minute I’ll drop you over the courtyard wall, and then you’ll have to become upside-down too. That was usually enough to make Maya shut her eyes and drop off to sleep. But you know, the strange thing was that as we grew older even I almost came to believe in our story. Often, when we were quite grown up, going to school and everything, we would sit in the patch of garden in front of their part of the house, and watch Jethamoshai’s door and try to imagine what was going on inside. It’s afternoon now, Maya would say, so they must be eating their breakfast, or some other silly thing like that, and we would both double up with laughter and hang on to each other’s necks. But sometimes, you know, when our parents were angry with us or we were feeling bad about something, we used to sit out there and gaze at that house. It seemed a better place to us then and we wished we could escape into it too.

But now, she said sadly, ruffling my hair, it’s all gone. They’re all dead and I have nowhere to invent stories about and nowhere to escape to.

Soon our brief Calcutta winter set in. The lakes were wonderful in that season and my grandmother took to accompanying me when I went out in the evening for my game of cricket. To my relief, she had the good sense to leave me and go off by herself once we were through the gates, but sometimes, when I was fielding at fine-leg or deep-square-leg, I would see her, a little white daub on the far side of the lake, walking briskly, stopping every once in a while to exchange a few words with the other elderly people who came to walk there in the evenings. My parents were pleased about her walks. I overheard them saying she had become easier to cope with now that she was going out of the house regularly and meeting people her own age. Soon she took to staying on in the park till long after our cricket game. I’d often look for her before going home and usually I would find her sitting on a bench, under one of the lake’s huge trees, chatting with her new friends.

At dinner, my father, smiling good-humouredly, would ask her what they had talked about: did they have any views, for instance, on the recent war with China?

Oh, we’re not interested in anything as current as that, my grandmother would reply. The past is what we talk about.

It turned out that many of the elderly people who went to the park had come across the border from the east too, during or just before Partition. Most of them had settled, just as my grandmother had done, in our part of Calcutta, which was then still undeveloped. So it was not really much of a coincidence that my grandmother often ran into people she had known or heard of, in Dhaka, when she went on her walks by the lake.

On one of those evenings my father came home exhausted after a series of long meetings at his office. It was not often that he came back as tired as that, and every time it happened a pleasurable sense of crisis would invade our house. It often seemed to me later that those were the moments in their lives that my parents most looked forward to: my father because it was at that those times, tired, fussed over and cared for, that he tasted most fully and richly the subtle rewards of a life that had never strayed from convention by so much as a displaced hair; my mother because it was then that she could best display her effortless mastery of the household arts – for instance, her ability to modulate the volumes and harmonies of our house down to a whisper, while making sure that its rhythms kept ticking over, in perfect time, in much the way that a great conductor can sometimes produce, within a vast tumult of music, one perfect semibreve of silence.

On evenings like those my mother would read the tell-tale signs upon my father’s drawn face as soon as he stepped out of the car. She would usher him at once to their room upstairs, and then she would come down again and tiptoe swiftly around the house: the servants would be told to turn off the transistor in the kitchen, the windows of the rooms that faced the traffic would be quickly and silently shut and I would be warned not to play with my cap guns. When silence had fallen on the house she would go back upstairs and lay out a clean, fresh kurta and a pair of pyjamas, and gently nudge him into the bathroom. While he was bathing she would hurry down again to the kitchen and make a cup of tea, exactly as he liked it, hot, sweet and milky, take it upstairs to the veranda that looked out over the garden, and put it on a table beside his easy chair. Then, when he came out, bathed and cool, she would sit beside him while he drank his tea, and talk to him in a quiet, soothing monotone about everything that had happened in the house that day.

It was on an evening such as that that my grandmother burst in upon us and cried: You’ll never believe who I met in the park today!

My mother was not pleased by this intrusion, and she tried to indicate that, whatever it was, it would keep till dinner-time. But there was no stopping my grandmother.

I met Minadi, she said breathlessly. You don’t know her; her family used to live down the lane from us in Dhaka. She’s always up on all the news about the whole world; she’s been like that since we were schoolgirls. Anyway, we were talking about this and that, catching up – it’s the first time I’ve met her in years – and suddenly she slaps my hand and says: Do you know that your cousin, one of your Jethamoshai’s sons, is living right here in Calcutta with his family? Somewhere in Garia if I’m not mistaken? Of course she knew I wouldn’t know; she knows everything about everyone. But anyway, I said no, we had lost touch, I had no idea where he was; and how had she found out? She said her maidservant had mentioned the name once, a long time ago – about a year or so. So naturally, being Minadi, she’d asked her a few questions and she’d found out soon enough that it was him – my cousin, Jethamoshai’s son. But it’s lucky for me that she’s such a walking daily gazette of other people’s affairs, because now she’s going to find out exactly where he lives so I can go and visit him.

Running out of breath she stopped to give us an eager sparkling look.

My father, at a loss to know what she wanted him to make of this, remarked mildly that after all those years they probably wouldn’t even recognise each other.

My grandmother frowned. That’s not important, she snapped. It doesn’t matter whether we recognise each other or not. We’re the same flesh, the same blood, the same bone, and now at last, after all these years, perhaps we’ll be able to make amends for all that bitterness and hatred.

Then, in that particular tone of hers which nobody argued with, a voice we had not heard for some time, she said to my father: Don’t forget to have the car ready on Sunday. Minadi’s promised to send her maidservant to lead us to his house.

At that, my mother gave a little cry of surprise and opened her mouth to say something, but my father shook his head at her, and she sat back in silence.

It was not as though she disapproved of what my grandmother was planning to do. On the contrary, she would have done the same herself, only she would have done it sooner, because for her, relatives and family were the central points which gave the world its shape and meaning; the foundations of moral order. But my grandmother on the other hand had never pretended to have much family feeling; she had always founded her morality, schoolmistress-like, in larger and more abstract entities. On the whole, for all but a few exceptions, she was extremely wary of her relatives; to her they represented an imprisoning wall of suspicion and obligations. Usually when she spoke of them, it was to remind us that it was all very well for Uncle So-and-so to smile and grin at us whenever he saw us now, but we ought not to forget that he had been quick to turn the other way during her hard years. She chose to forget that in those years it was she who, in the fierceness of her pride, had severed her connections with most of her relatives, and had refused to accept any help from them at all, even from Mayadebi, her own sister; that she, being, as she was, too formidable a woman for people to thrust their help upon without being asked, had never had the generosity to ask of her own will. The price she had paid for that pride was that it had come to be transformed in her imagination into a barrage of slights and snubs; an imaginary barrier that she believed her gloating relatives had erected to compound her humiliation.

It was only natural that my mother was surprised at this sudden onrush of family feeling in her. Nobody had ever heard her speak of any of her relatives – not even Mayadebi, whom she loved – with the missionary warmth that she had in her voice now, while speaking of the children of a man whom her parents had hated more than anyone else in the world.

I don’t know what’s got into her head now, my mother said later, worriedly; but I’m sure it’s nothing to do with her cousin – there’s something else inside her, rattling around.

Duly on Sunday the car arrived, and soon afterwards so did the woman who was to lead us to my grandmother’s cousin’s house. She was dumpy and middle-aged with a large round face and prominent eyes.

What’s your name? My grandmother said, looking her up and down without enthusiasm.

Mrinmoyee, said the woman, shifting a wad of paan from one cheek to the other.

Oh, ‘Mrinmoyee’ is it? mimicked my grandmother, thrusting her chin forward – she was always savagely cutting maidservants who had names which struck her as being pretentious for their station.

But now my father, intervening hastily, broke in to ask Mrinmoyee whether she was sure she knew exactly who we were looking for. He said the name aloud, watching her closely.

Mrinmoyee nodded, chewing slowly on her paan. Yes, she said, in a thick Noakhali accent. Yes, that’s the one. Nidhu-babu they used to call him – he used to be a ticket clerk at the Shonarpur railway station near where my brother lived. But after he retired he went off to Garia.

She stopped and gave my father a long, considering look. Of course, she said, you must know that he died last year, of a pain in the chest?

My grandmother gasped and sank into a chair, stunned; but it was clear that she was less grieved than disappointed. She was silent for a while, covering her eyes with her hands. Then she stood up and announced: It doesn’t matter – we’ll go anyway. Maybe his wife will be able to give us some news of the rest of the family.

No, Ma, listen, my father began, but she cut him short.

Yes, I’ve decided, she said, leading us out. Come on, let’s go.

So my father reluctantly started the car and we all climbed in.

We turned off Southern Avenue at Gole Park, and found, inevitably, that the gates of the railway crossing at Dhakuria were down. We had to stew in the midday heat for half an hour before the gates were lifted again. We sped off past the open fields around the Jodhpur Club and down the tree-lined stretch of road that ran along the campus of Jadavpur University. But immediately afterwards we had to slow down to a crawl as the road grew progressively narrower and more crowded. Rows of shacks appeared on both sides of the road now, small ramshackle structures, some of them built on low stilts, with walls of plaited bamboo, and roofs that had been patched together somehow out of sheets of corrugated iron. A ragged line of concrete houses rose behind the shacks, most of them unfinished.

My grandmother, looking out of her window in amazement, exclaimed: When I last came here ten years ago, there were rice fields running alongside the road; it was the kind of place where rich Calcutta people built garden houses. And look at it now – as filthy as a babui’s nest. It’s all because of the refugees, flooding in like that.

Just like we did, said my father, to provoke her.

We’re not refugees, snapped my grandmother, on cue. We came long before Partition.

Mrinmoyee suddenly thrust her head out of the window and pointed to a two-storey concrete building. That’s the one, she said. That’s where they live.

My father brought the car slowly to a halt, inching it carefully off the narrow road and on to the gravel. He opened his door to climb out, but then, glancing suspiciously at the shacks and shanties on either side of the road, he announced that he was going to stay in the car; he had heard that cars were often stripped down to their chassis in places like this.

Turning to me he said: Stay here with me. I don’t want you to go up there.

There was a harsh, insistent note in his voice; I knew that he was angry with himself for having brought me there. But now I was determined to go too, so I slipped out quietly when he wasn’t looking.

Mrinmoyee led us into the building and up two dark flights of stairs. We had to stop several times to make way for groups of children who went swarming past us, chasing each other up and down the staircase, their shouts and laughter booming down the stairwell. The stairs were slippery with dirt, the bare cement walls blackened with soot and wood smoke, the wiring strung up in bright festoons, the copper exposed at the joins where the insulating tape had worn off. It was a long, matchbox-like building, not large, although it was evident from the barrack-like partitions that divided its corridors that dozens of families inhabited it.

Mrinmoyee led us to a door on the second floor and called out: Anybody in? We heard feet shuffling inside, and a moment later the door swung open.

My mother and grandmother were taken aback by the appearance of the woman who stepped out. They had been expecting someone very old, with a bent back perhaps, and a face like a raisin. The woman standing in front of us was no more than middle-aged, with thick spectacles, a broad chin, and very black hair – so black, my grandmother said later, that she must have used an industrial dye.

She looked at us in surprise, recognised Mrinmoyee, and raised a puzzled eyebrow in our direction.

They wanted to meet you, Mrinmoyee said placidly, and my grandmother quickly broke in and explained that we were relatives.

The woman understood at once who we were and how we were related to her dead husband. She smiled and patted me on the head when, in response to my mother’s proddings, I bowed down to touch her feet. But then she glanced at her crumpled sari and, gesturing with her thumb and forefinger, she said: Just one minute.

She disappeared inside, shutting the door behind her. When she opened it again, five minutes later, there was a thick layer of powder on her face, and she had changed into a brilliantly white nylon sari.

She ushered us into the room, apologising loudly for its smallness, the lack of chairs, explaining that she was soon going to move out, with her son, to a much bigger, better flat, it was a pity we had come at exactly this very moment, we had caught her in the middle of her packing …

The room was so dark there was neon light glowing inside, although it was midday. A large framed picture of Rabindranath Tagore hung on one of the walls. Under it, on a length of rope, strung up between the corners of the room, hung a dishevelled curtain of drying saris, dirty petticoats and unwashed trousers and underwear. My mother and grandmother seated themselves gingerly on the edge of a bed that was pushed up against the far wall. Our relative sat down beside them and motioned to Mrinmoyee to squat on the floor.

There was no place for me to sit, so I slipped back outside to the long, veranda-like corridor. Raising myself on tiptoe, I leant on the low railing that ran along it and looked down. I could not see the road; the corridor faced in the other direction. There weren’t any more houses behind the building we were in. The ground fell away sharply from the edges of the building and then levelled out into a patchwork of stagnant pools, dotted with islands of low, raised ground. Clinging to these islands were little clumps of shanties, their beaten tin roofs glistening rustily in the midday sun. The pools were black, covered with a sludge so thick that it had defeated even the ubiquitous carpets of water hyacinth. I could see women squatting at the edges of the pools, splashing with both hands to drive back the layers of sludge, scooping up the cleaner water underneath to scrub their babies and wash their clothes and cooking utensils. There was a factory beyond, surrounded by a very high wall. I could see only its long, saw-toothed steel roof and its chimneys, thrusting up smoke that was as black as the sludge below. Running along the factory wall was a dump of some kind; small hillocks of some black and gravelly substance sloped down from it towards the sludge-encrusted pools. Shading my eyes, I saw that there were a number of moving figures dotted over those slopes. They were very small at that distance, but I could tell they had sacks slung over their shoulders. They were picking bits of rubble off the slopes and dropping them into their sacks. I could only see them when they moved; when they were still they disappeared completely – they were perfectly camouflaged, like chameleons, because everything on them, their clothes, their sacks, their skins, was the uniform matt black of the sludge in the pools.

Our relative spotted me leaning on the railing and ran out.

Don’t look there! she cried. It’s dirty! Then she led me back inside.

I went willingly: I was already well schooled in looking away, the jungle-craft of gentility. But still, I could not help thinking it was a waste of effort to lead me away. It was true, of course, that I could not see that landscape or anything like it from my own window, but its presence was palpable everywhere in our house; I had grown up with it. It was that landscape that lent the note of hysteria to my mother’s voice when she drilled me for my examinations; it was to those slopes she pointed when she told me that if I didn’t study hard I would end up over there, that the only weapon people like us had was our brains and if we didn’t use them like claws to cling to what we’d got, that was where we’d end up, marooned in that landscape: I knew perfectly well that all it would take was a couple of failed examinations to put me where our relative was, in permanent proximity to that blackness: that landscape was the quicksand that seethed beneath the polished floors of our house; it was that sludge which gave our genteel decorum its fine edge of frenzy.

Our relative made us tea and served us Thin Arrowroot biscuits, prettily arranged in a flower pattern on a plate.

While we were sipping our tea she and my grandmother had a long conversation. She told my grandmother that her late husband had gone back to Dhaka a few years before he died in the hope that he would be able to persuade his father to move to India.

You mean he was still there then? my grandmother cried, leaning forward.

She nodded. Yes, she said. Still living in the old house.

Her husband had tried to get his brothers and sisters to go back to Dhaka with him, to bring the old man to India, but they hadn’t shown much interest. They were scattered all over anyway – one of them was in Bangalore, one in the Middle East, and the other God knew where. So her husband had gone back to Dhaka alone. He had thought they might even make a little money by selling the house if their father could be persuaded to move to Calcutta. But when he went there he found that the whole house had been occupied by Muslim refugees from India – mainly people who had gone across from Bihar and U.P.

My grandmother gasped in shock.

Our house? she said. You mean our house has been occupied by refugees?

Yes, said our relative, smiling benignly. That’s what I said. The house was empty after Partition, everyone had left but my father-in-law, and he didn’t even try to keep the refugees out. What could he have done anyway? As soon as he got to Dhaka my husband realised that he wouldn’t be able to reclaim that house – no Pakistani court was going to evict those refugees. And the old man didn’t care anyway – there was a family living there who looked after him, and that was enough as far as he was concerned. He was – you know – not quite all there; he didn’t really care what happened.

Poor old man, my grandmother said, her voice trembling. Imagine what it must be like to die in another country, abandoned and alone in your old age.

Oh, he may not be dead yet, our relative said brightly. Didn’t I say so?

What do you mean? said my grandmother. Are you saying he may still be alive? But he’d be over ninety …

Our relative smiled and bit into a Thin Arrowroot biscuit, decorously covering her mouth with the back of her hand as she chewed.

Well he was certainly alive last month, she said. He wrote to me, you see – just a postcard, but it was definitely in his handwriting. I’d written to him after my husband died, just in case, at the old address – although we hadn’t heard from him in years. But that was months and months ago, and when we didn’t hear from him I just thought, well … But then, last month, there it was, a postcard …

Can I see it? my grandmother said eagerly.

Our relative nodded, picked a postcard off a shelf and handed it to my grandmother.

My grandmother stared at it as it lay in her open palms, like an offering.

There’s the address, she mumbled to herself; 1/31 Jindabahar Lane – it’s still the same.

She had to raise her hand to wipe away the tear that was rolling down her cheek.

I can read his handwriting! she said. He’s written: ‘He should have stayed.’

Taking a deep breath, she handed the postcard back. Then she rose to her feet, thanked our relative and said it was time for us to go now, my father would be waiting. Our relative insisted politely that we stay a while longer, but my grandmother declined, with a smile. So then our relative said she would come down with us to see us off, and on the way down she took my mother’s arm and they hung back, whispering. It was a while before they came down and my father was beginning to get impatient. But before starting the car he thanked our relative profusely and asked her to visit. I turned back to look as we pulled away, and saw her, framed by the concrete doorway, waving.

What was she saying to you on the stairs? my grandmother asked my mother.

My mother laughed in a puzzled kind of way, and explained that evidently she’d known all about us, even though we’d never met her before – she’d known exactly what my father did and where we lived. She had talked about her son: he was twenty-five now and had passed his matric, but he hadn’t been able to find a job. He was going to the bad, she’d said, doing nothing all day long, except hanging around the streets with gangsters. Could my father find him a job? she had begged.

Poor thing, my mother concluded. We should do something to help her.

Why? retorted my grandmother. Did anyone do anything to help me when I was living like that? Don’t get taken in by these stories. Once these people start making demands it never ends. Anyway, she looks quite capable of managing by herself.

My mother kept quiet; she knew better than to argue with my grandmother on that subject.

It’s not her I’m worried about, my grandmother said with a vehement shake of her head. I’m worried about him: poor old man, all by himself, abandoned in that country, surrounded by …

She allowed the sentence to trail away. When she spoke again we were almost home, and her voice was soft and dreamy.

There’s only one worthwhile thing left for me to do in my life now, she said. And that is to bring the old man home …

And her eyes grew misty at the thought of rescuing her uncle from his enemies and bringing him back where he belonged, to her invented country.

It must have been at about this time that May received her fourth letter from Tridib. She found it lying on the carpet, with the gas bill, when she got home from college and opened the front door. She knew it was from Tridib at once, because of the stamps. But apart from that it wasn’t at all like the other letters she had had from him. The others had been very thin, postcards really. But she could tell from the weight of the envelope that this one was several pages long. She was mildly intrigued, but she decided to save it up for later. She took it into the kitchen, unopened, and handed her mother the gas bill. Mrs Price noticed the envelope, and May, seeing that she had noticed, mumbled something about Tridib having written again. Mrs Price nodded vaguely in acknowledgement and turned away to check the kettle.

May heard Nick’s key turning in the front door and ran up to her room with the letter. They had quarrelled that morning, as usual, about the washing-up or something, and she didn’t want to wear herself out by quarrelling with him again. She had to be at her best that evening: she was rehearsing in a church in Kilburn with a quintet a friend of hers had got together. She slammed the door shut, flopped down on her bed, and tore the top off the envelope with her teeth. The letter slipped out of her hands: it was even longer than she had thought.

By the time she had finished reading it her face was beaded with sweat. Raising her knuckles, she found that her cheeks were burning, almost feverish. She jumped off her bed and ran down to the bathroom. Gently, almost furtively, she shut the door behind her and leant on it to catch her breath.

He had her picture on his desk, he’d written. He liked to have it in front of him every time he wrote to her. But it was awful having it there in a way, looking him in the face: there were so many things he wanted to write about, but every time that picture caught his eye, he found himself thinking of Lymington Road and Hampstead. But that wasn’t quite right either, not really accurate. He didn’t ‘think’ of Lymington Road; he could see it, quite clearly, as though he were there, with her, sitting under the cherry tree in the garden.

A September evening, for example, the end of a lovely day. There had only been one short Alert during the day, and that was around midday. It was twilight now, and the sun was already dipping behind the houses on the other side of West End Lane; soon he would have to go back to number 44 – soon, but not quite yet. So while there was still time he might as well go down to the corner and take a look at the house which had been hit by a bomb yesterday.

It was the block of flats on the corner of Lymington Road and West End Lane; a building called Lymington Mansions. He had always liked it, with its gables and its cheerful façade of red brick. But a lot of it was gone now, especially the upper parts: it had taken a direct hit. He could see a window flapping in the breeze on the first floor; it looked as though the whole frame were flapping on hinges. But there wasn’t any rubble anywhere; it had all been cleared away.

He ought to go back to number 44 now; it was getting late …

On an impulse he sprinted across the road, forgetting to look to his right and left as he had been taught. And sure enough, there was a screech of rubber somewhere to his right, followed by a furious blast on a horn. He didn’t dare look back till he had reached the safety of the pavement. A man with a big, red face was climbing out of a little Morris, glowering at him, shaking his fist.

He turned on his heel and ran as fast as he could, without looking back again. He didn’t stop till he had crossed another big road and found a narrow deserted lane to hide in. He wasn’t sure where he was, but he guessed he had run past Brondesbury Station. He had come a long way from West End Lane anyway, he was safe from the man in the Morris.

Leaning against the wall, he looked for a place to rest. There was a row of small shops running down the other side of the lane. They were all shut now. On his side there was a high wall – no, not quite a wall, it was actually the side of a large building. It was a long, blank stretch of red brick – nowhere to sit, not even a doorway. He was about to go back the way he’d come when something caught his eye – a black patch in the wall, near the end of the lane. It looked like an opening of some kind, but it wasn’t a door, he could tell; it looked more like a hole.

He couldn’t tell exactly what it was, so he decided to take a look.

It was exactly as he had thought – a section of the wall had been knocked out, leaving a jagged, triangular breach. There was something intriguing about the darkness and the smell of dust inside. He took a quick look up and down the lane, and when he was sure no one was looking he climbed in. There was no reason why he should not be seen climbing in, but somehow it was that kind of place.

He was inside a high, warehouse-like building. Puzzled, he looked around, trying to decide what it was. Then he saw long, curved rows of seats, all looking in the same direction, and he knew at once that it was a cinema. But now the empty seats were looking towards a hole in the wall, for a large part of the front of the building, where the screen had once hung, had been blown out – he could see two roofs through the hole. The bomb had probably exploded somewhere there, near the screen – perhaps it had looked like a part of the film. There was a deep pit in the floor there and a couple of seats were poised on its edge, crazily tilted, as though they had just tipped their occupants in.

Turning around, he saw that the gallery, projecting out over the back rows on the ground floor, was still intact. It looked as though it hadn’t been damaged at all. He found himself making his way instinctively towards it; he loved to sit in the gallery when he went to see films. He was glad this hall had one; sometimes they didn’t. He jumped easily over the few twisted seats that barred the aisle. There wasn’t any rubble; it had been swept neatly into the corners.

The aisle led him to a door at the back of the hall. He put his ear to the door, and when he didn’t hear anything on the other side, he pushed it open, gingerly. It opened into the foyer. The ticket booth was untouched – it looked as though its lights might come on any minute. He let the door go and it swung back into place, shutting out the reflected twilight. It was suddenly very dark in there. He had to feel his way along the wall towards the spot where he thought the stairs to the gallery might be. It seemed much further away than he had expected, but just when he thought he was lost, he stubbed his foot against the stairs. Going down on his hands and knees, he crawled up feeling cautiously ahead of him – he didn’t relish the thought of falling through a hole in the staircase. He felt his way around a bend in the staircase and up another flight of stairs, and then he was there, right at the entrance to the gallery, and he could see again, because the twilight was shining in gently, through the hole near the screen. The gallery was undamaged, untouched; it sloped gently away from him, the blue upholstery of the seats shimmering, like velvet, in the twilight. He fell into one of the seats, and tried to fold himself up in it – it was fun doing that in cinemas; sometimes he could even touch his nose with his knees. But today he didn’t try; instead he leant back and looked up. It was oddly exhilarating to sit back in a plush seat in a cinema and find a twilit sky looking down on you.

He got up, went down to the bottom of the gallery, lay on his stomach, and peered through the gaps in the wrought-iron balustrade. The twisted seats below looked odd from up there – like plants curling up towards the sunlight. He turned his head and found that he could see the pavement through the breach in the wall that had let him in.

As he lay there, looking out at the road, whistling through his teeth, a shadow crossed the breach in the outer wall. Startled, he stopped whistling and watched warily, ready to run. A woman in a blue skirt went by and then, a moment later, came back again and stood still, framed by the jagged arch in the wall. She glanced down at her feet in irritation, and following the direction of her gaze he saw that she was holding a small white and tan spaniel on a lead. It had stopped to shit on the pavement. The woman made a face, reached into her handbag, took out a cigarette, and lit it. She drew on it hard, sucking in her cheeks, and then, throwing her head back, she let the smoke curl gently out of her nostrils.

And then, while she was drawing on her cigarette again, another pair of feet appeared, a man’s this time, on the pavement on the other side of the lane – though from his vantage point they seemed to be hanging at the top of the arch-like breach, like a cloud in a painting. The feet came to a halt, seemed to hesitate and then turned and crossed the lane. Now he could see the man: he was wearing a blue uniform and a cap, obviously an airman of some kind, maybe even a pilot. He had a thin moustache and there was an unlit cigarette in his mouth.

The woman turned away quickly when she saw the man walking towards her. She tugged at the dog’s leash but it would not move; it ground its heels into the pavement and began to whine. The man paid no notice. He went up to it, bent down to give it a pat on its head, and then straightened up again, smiling, and said something to the woman, gesturing at his unlit cigarette. The woman nodded, and reaching into her handbag she took out her lighter and handed it to him. The man lit his cigarette, cupping his hands around the flame, and gave it back to her. Then he took the cigarette out of his mouth, grinned, and said something into her ear, nodding in the direction of the breach in the cinema’s wall. At first the woman’s head snapped back and she opened her mouth in outraged surprise. But then she looked at him again, properly, and her face softened. She tossed her head, still looking at him, and giggled. The man in the uniform laughed and slipped his arm through hers. She picked up the dog, and with a quick glance up the lane they stepped through the breach.

Once they were in they looked around for a moment, blinded, their eyes searching the darkness. The boy got a good look at their faces now. Her face was very white, her lips a brilliant red; he was much taller than her and heavily built, but she looked much older than him.

The man put an arm around her waist and pointed, down the aisle, to a spot almost directly below the boy. She giggled again, and shook her head, but she let him take her elbow and lead her forward. She was wearing high heels and she kept stumbling on the tattered carpet and twisted chairs in the aisle, but the man seemed to know his way around the hall, and he managed to keep her from falling.

By the time they reached the clean patch in the carpeted aisle, below the boy, they were both breathing heavily. The man let go of her arm suddenly, spun her around and gave her a kiss on the middle of her forehead. He took the dog out of her hands, put it down on a seat, and twisted its lead around the armrest.

Then he spun around, and at once the woman caught hold of his collar and pulled his head down towards hers and pushed her mouth up against his. She was clasping his head so hard her knuckles were white with the effort. But the man managed to jerk his head away, and then, smiling, he worked one of his hands free, holding her pinned to his chest with the other, and reached down and tugged at her skirt. Parting her legs the woman rose on tiptoe, pushing her lips against his ears. He laughed and raised her a few inches off the ground with a great heave of his shoulders, and pushed his hand gently up her thighs and into her skirt. The woman pecked at his ear, and in response he pushed his hand all the way up her skirt and held it there. She gave a tiny scream, clenching her teeth, and the small of her back began to twitch. The man let her down then, pulled his hand out of her skirt and lifted it to his nose, rubbing his fingers together. He sniffed the tips of his fingers, smiling, and then held them against her nose. She turned her head away with a grimace, so he kissed his fingertips and laughed. She began to laugh with him too, and he pulled her towards him and thrust his mouth down on hers, and she, squeezing a hand between their bodies, contrived to push it under his belt and into his trousers. His shoulders snapped back, and he took hold of her arm for a moment and held it where it was, inside his trousers. Then he stepped back, loosened his belt, put an arm around her shoulders and lowered her to the floor.

Suddenly the dog began to bark. It was a shrill, ugly sound. The boy looked quickly up at the breach in the wall and saw a man in a black hat walking past. The man in the hat stopped when he heard the dog, and peered in. Now the boy was frightened for the man in the uniform and the woman in the blue skirt; he wished they would stop the dog barking.

The woman sat up and gave the dog a slap on its nose. It whined and stopped barking, and the man in the black hat shook his head and went away.

The woman was in a hurry now; the boy could tell from the sound of her breathing. She reached quickly for the bottom of her pullover and pulled it over her shoulders along with her blouse. Then she sat up briefly, reached behind, and suddenly her brassière fell away. Her breasts were heavy and full, reaching down half-way to her stomach, the skin very pale and a little wrinkled, as though she had just spent hours in the sea. The boy could see the nipples; they were brown and round, like the tuppenny pieces he took to the newsagent’s every morning. In the centre they were hard and pointed, and very dark, like raisins; he longed to reach down and touch them and roll them between his fingers.

The man in the uniform put his hands on them and the woman’s body seemed to shiver, and her torso arched upwards. She wasn’t smiling any more; she was sweating, and the drops were carving furrows in the white make-up on her face.

She undid the clasps of her skirt and the man pulled it off. Then he pulled off her white underwear too, put his hand on the damp shadow between her legs and ran his thumb over it, gently, smiling. She groaned and thrust her hips against his body, but she was cold now, her breasts and stomach were dotted with goosepimples, and she tried to pull him quickly down on top of her. But he twisted out of her reach and sat back, balancing on his toes and knees, and pushed his trousers down, to his ankles.

The woman reached out towards the man, and looking down, at her outstretched arms, it seemed to the boy that she was reaching for him, and suddenly he found himself writhing, his pelvis pinned against the wooden floor of the gallery.

When he looked down again, the man was on top of her, his hips between her parted thighs. He was still wearing his cap and his jacket, only his buttocks were bare. The boy could see the sweat rolling down the sides, beading the line of dark hair that divided them.

Then the dog began to bark again, and the boy quickly looked up at the breach. There were two pairs of feet walking past this time, on the other side of the lane. He held his breath, wondering whether there was any chance of their not hearing the dog, or the noise the two of them were making. The sounds of their lovemaking seemed impossibly loud now, a fierce, panting kind of sound, along with the rhythmic, sweaty slapping of their bodies. He could feel his knees trembling, with apprehension, with a longing that he couldn’t understand, and with a fierce, bursting pain that was running through his body and gathering in his groin. But he knew that he didn’t want them to be found by those other people outside; he knew he was on their side. He wished he could think of a way of warning them.

The two pairs of feet on the pavement went away, without stopping, and the boy was so glad, for them, and himself, that he almost giggled. And then, down below, he heard the man choke while his whole body went rigid. Then the woman screamed, very softly, and her feet kicked the air, and her back rose off the floor, lifting the man.

The boy got to his feet quietly then, and managed to slip out without being seen.

May splashed water on her face and watched herself as it dripped into the basin.

It was all so long ago, the letter had said, that he didn’t know any longer whether it had really happened or he had imagined it.

But he did know that that was how he wanted to meet her, May – as a stranger, in a ruin. He wanted them to meet as the completest of strangers – strangers-across-the-seas – all the more strangers because they knew each other already. He wanted them to meet far from their friends and relatives – in a place without a past, without history, free, really free, two people coming together with the utter freedom of strangers.

But of course, if that was to happen, she would have to come to India. They would find a place like that somewhere; he was an expert on ruins.

May seated herself on the rim of the bathtub and touched her face again – it was still hot.

It was hot because she was angry, she decided. And no wonder she was angry – anyone would be if they’d got a pornographic letter from a man they’d never met, would never meet. She was shaking now, with anger: what right had he to write to her like that? Really, what right? It was an intrusion, a violation of her privacy; that was why she was trembling. It was like seeing a flasher. It was incredible, mad; only a madman would think of writing a letter like that.

She heard Nick running up the stairs, past the bathroom, going into his room. Every sound in the house seemed to carry into the bathroom with an unnatural clarity – she told herself that she ought to remind her mother to do something about it; it wasn’t right in a house like theirs, not decent, really …

She opened the bathroom door and went back to her room. Stuffing the letter back into its envelope, she tucked it away under her clothes, in a drawer. Then she fell on her bed and began to wonder why she had bothered to hide it. It wasn’t any fault of hers if someone she didn’t know wrote her a pornographic letter. Why shouldn’t her mother find it? It was her fault as much as anybody else’s.

She glanced at her watch and saw that it was time to leave for her rehearsal. On her way out she went into the drawing room to tell her mother she was going out and would be back late for dinner.

Mrs Price was sitting in an armchair, reading. She took off her spectacles to look at May, nodded, and said absently: Don’t be too late, will you, dear.

Of course not, May answered. You know I won’t.

She had turned to go when Mrs Price said: Oh yes, and what did Tridib have to say in his letter?

Before she knew it, May found herself saying: Oh, nothing very much. He’s invited me to visit India.

Mrs Price smiled, looking mistily up from her book. Yes, she said. It’s a good idea, you ought to go.

May gave her a quick smile and hurried out of the house. It was only when she was walking down Lymington Road that she found herself wondering why she had bothered to lie to her mother when she had promised to herself that she wouldn’t.

The rehearsal seemed to go on for ever.

Afterwards, while they were drinking tea, the clarinettist, who was doing research on something to do with modern French music, talked about Messiaen and the Indian influences on his music. She was surprised; she’d thought it was all bird-calls and stuff like that. It seemed eerily coincidental somehow.

Later, on her way home, walking down the Kilburn High Road, she caught herself thinking about Messiaen again. She didn’t have anything of his at home; perhaps she could drop into a record shop tomorrow and have a look.

A little farther down the road, waiting to cross the street, she found herself dawdling outside an Indian restaurant. The Taj Mahal Curry Palace. It had a picture of the Taj Mahal in the window. Staring at it, she found herself wondering whether her mother wasn’t right after all – perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. There was the Messiaen to find out about; nothing to do with Tridib.

She touched her face and found that it was hot again. She turned abruptly, and hurried across the road.

My father, who was a boyish sort of man in some ways, used to take a great delight in carrying good news to people. Like a child with a bar of chocolate, he would draw out the pleasure by asking teasing questions or by pretending that he had forgotten the news, and then, suddenly, he would spring his surprise and lean back to savour the moment, rubbing his hands. That moment would give him so much pleasure that sometimes, in his eagerness to savour it, he would fail to distinguish between news that was really good and that which was merely unexpected.

One evening in March 1963, he came home from work with that unmistakable look of mischief and anticipated pleasure written large on his face. My mother noticed it when she took him his cup of tea. She asked him what the matter was, but he shook his head, smiling enigmatically, and told us to wait – we would find out at dinner.

My grandmother was late for dinner that evening. She was out walking in the park. I could sense my father’s growing impatience as we sat out in the garden, waiting for her to come back so that we could go in and eat our dinner. When at last he heard the creak of the gate and saw her walking up the path, he leapt out of his chair and began to scold her: she oughtn’t to stay out in the park so late, and didn’t she know it wasn’t safe, and so on. My grandmother was taken aback. And didn’t he know, she retorted, that she hadn’t been born yesterday?

By the time we were sitting around the dinner table, my father was too impatient to play his usual guessing games.

I have some news for you, he said to my grandmother.

News? said my grandmother apprehensively. What news?

Rubbing his hands together, my father told her that the Shaheb had been given a new posting and a promotion – one of the most challenging assignments in his profession.

My grandmother snorted and reached for the dal.

Impossible, she said with a little toss of her head.

Why? My father was indignant.

Who would promote him? my grandmother said, her profile growing spiky with contempt. He drinks; he’s a drunkard.

My father shook his head furiously and said she had no idea what she was talking about; the Shaheb wasn’t a drunkard at all – he just had the occasional drink, and that was only normal in his line of business. It was well known that he was an extremely competent man, and if he hadn’t risen quite as high as he should have, it was only because certain cliques in his ministry were trying to do him down. It had nothing whatever to do with drink; she was wholly mistaken. And so on.

But it was apparent from my grandmother’s face that she was not persuaded by my father’s arguments. That wasn’t surprising, for my grandmother’s contempt for the Shaheb had nothing to do with drink at all, as my father thought: it was founded on the same iron fairness which prompted her, when she became headmistress, to dismiss one of her closest friends – a good-natured but chronically lazy woman – from her job in the school: at bottom she thought the Shaheb was not fit for his job, that he was weak, essentially weak, backbone-less; it was impossible to think of him being firm under threat, of reacting to a difficult or dangerous situation with that controlled, accurate violence which was the quality she prized above all others in men who had to deal with matters of state. She knew instinctively that it was Mayadebi who took his decisions, who virtually did his work for him, who had politicked and manoeuvred with all her resources to salvage something of his career, and therefore, imagining him to be nothing but a dim irradiation of her sister, she could not help being a little contemptuous of him.

It was not that she disliked the Shaheb: she merely distrusted and despised him in a mildly amused sort of way, and she would have done neither, as she often said, if he were only doing something else, something less important, though what that something was I was never sure, for she certainly would not have been any more tolerant of him had he been a schoolteacher or even a revenue inspector: perhaps she would have liked him best if he had been a hotelier, or maybe an artist, for professions such as those were synonymous in her mind with the most detestable kind of cosmopolitanism.

My father spent a good half-hour trying doggedly to persuade her that the Shaheb was a very able man and deserved to be at the top of his profession. When he finally gave up, my grandmother said quietly: You still haven’t told me where he’s been posted.

My father slapped his forehead. Oh yes, he cried. I forgot that was the real news.

Why? said my grandmother. Where is he going?

You wouldn’t ever be able to guess, my father said.

Where is it?

Not far from here, he said, his eyes twinkling mischievously.

My grandmother thrust her plate away. She seemed disturbed now, possibly even a little frightened.

Where? she pleaded. Tell me.

He’s going to Dhaka, my father announced triumphantly. He’s been made Councillor in the Deputy High Commission there.

My grandmother gave him a long, blank stare, then she pushed her chair back and went slowly up to her room. When I followed her up a little later I found that she had locked the door.

Nobody mentioned Dhaka again to her over the next few days, but once I heard my mother saying wistfully to my father that it would be nice if she went off to Dhaka for a holiday – it would give everyone a rest.

A week later there was a letter for my grandmother. It was from Mayadebi. My father turned it over and he and my mother exchanged glances. Then he handed the letter to me and told me to take it up to my grandmother’s room.

I sprinted up the stairs and into her room, waving the envelope like a flag: Tha’mma, Tha’mma, there’s a letter for you.

Her forehead wrinkled into a frown of anxious expectation, and she touched her gold chain before she took the letter from me. I sat down to watch her, while she put on her spectacles and tore open the envelope. But she happened to look up and see me, and she put the letter down and told me firmly to leave the room.

At dinner that evening my parents were careful not to mention the letter. For a while my grandmother talked nervously about politics, the state of education, the Prime Minister’s speech in Parliament and so on. And then, without a pause, in the same flat voice, she said: Maya’s invited me to visit her in Dhaka.

My parents looked up, smiling, and my father sighed and said: Yes, of course, I knew she would.

My grandmother was chewing her lip now and looking down at her plate. Softly, she said: I don’t know if I should go.

My parents exchanged an astonished glance.

Of course you must go, Ma, my father said.

Why, said my mother, even a few months ago you were saying that it was the one thing you really wanted to do.

I know, my grandmother said uncertainly. But now … I don’t know. I feel scared. Do you think it will be wise after all these years? It won’t be like home any more.

The cham-chams and all the other sweets will be the same, my mother said encouragingly. And so will all the fish. And there’ll be all those lovely Dhakai saris to buy.

And imagine, added my father, you’ll get to fly in an aeroplane for the first time. It’ll be a lovely holiday.

This stung my grandmother. Glaring at my father, she said: If I go it won’t be for a holiday. You ought to know I don’t believe in luxuries like that. I haven’t taken a holiday all my life and I’m not going to start now. If I go it will be for the sake of Jethamoshai. Since I am the only person in the family who cares, it is my duty to see if I can bring the poor old man back.

So you are going then? my mother asked anxiously.

At that my grandmother’s uncertainty returned. I don’t know, she said. I really don’t know …

Over the next few months my parents tried often to push her gently to make up her mind. But every time they brought up the subject my grandmother would either shake her head or simply get up and leave the room.

Then, in June, after three months had passed, our phone rang late one evening. My father happened to answer it. He listened, and then told me to fetch my grandmother – it was a trunk call for her from Delhi. From Mayadebi.

A trunk call from another city was a very exciting matter: a kind of minor miracle, but also cause for anxiety until one found out whether the news was good or bad. I ran up the stairs so fast that when I got to her room I was too breathless to explain. Instead I simply grabbed her hand and dragged her down the stairs.

My parents and I hovered around as she stuck a trembling finger in one ear and raised the instrument to the other. We heard her say: Yes, yes, I don’t know, I can’t make up my mind, when are you leaving? There was a short pause as she listened to Mayadebi. Then, at the top of her voice, she began to explain that their uncle was still alive, still living, in Dhaka, in their old house; that she, Maya, must go and look him up as soon as she reached Dhaka, something had to be done about bringing him to India … She ran out of breath and listened again, for a bit. I don’t know, she said in response to a question. No, really, I can’t decide – it’s not for myself, I’m worrying about Jethamoshai. Then again she listened, smiling now, and at last she said: All right, I’ll come, I give you my word.

Mayadebi, the Shaheb and Robi had flown into Delhi last week, she explained to my parents after she had put the phone down. They were leaving for Dhaka a couple of days later – they weren’t going to be able to stop in Calcutta – they didn’t have enough time.

But are you going to Dhaka too? my father said. That’s the important thing.

My grandmother shrugged helplessly. What else can I do? she said. It’s out of my hands now; everything seems to be pointing in that direction.

When will you go then?

If I go, she said, it will have to be in January next year. I must give them some time to settle down in their new house.

A few weeks later, at dinner, my father, grinning hugely, pushed an envelope across the table to my grandmother. That’s for you, he said.

What is it? she said, eyeing it suspiciously.

Go on, he said. Have a look.

She picked it up, opened the flap and peered into it. I can’t tell, she said. What is it?

My father burst into laughter. It’s your plane ticket, he said. For Dhaka – for the third of January, 1964.

That night, for the first time in months, my grandmother seemed really excited. When I went up to see her, before going to bed, I found her pacing around the room, her face flushed, her eyes shining. I was delighted. It was the first time in my eleven-year-old life that she had presented me with a response that I could fully understand – since I had never been on a plane myself, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to me that the prospect of her first flight should fill her with excitement. But I couldn’t help worrying about her too, for I also knew that, unlike me, she was totally ignorant about aeroplanes, and before I fell asleep that night I resolved that I would make sure that she was properly prepared before she left. But soon enough it was apparent to me that it wasn’t going to be easy to educate her: I could tell from the direction of the questions she asked my father that, left to herself, she would learn nothing about aeroplanes.

For instance, one evening when we were sitting out in the garden she wanted to know whether she would be able to see the border between India and East Pakistan from the plane. When my father laughed and said, why, did she really think the border was a long black line with green on one side and scarlet on the other, like it was in a school atlas, she was not so much offended as puzzled.

No, that wasn’t what I meant, she said. Of course not. But surely there’s something – trenches perhaps, or soldiers, or guns pointing at each other, or even just barren strips of land. Don’t they call it no-man’s land?

My father was already an experienced traveller. He burst out laughing and said: No, you won’t be able to see anything except clouds and perhaps, if you’re lucky, some green fields.

His laughter nettled her. Be serious, she snapped. Don’t talk to me as though I were a secretary in your office.

Now it was his turn to be offended: it upset him when she spoke sharply to him within my hearing.

That’s all I can tell you, he said. That’s all there is.

My grandmother thought this over for a while, and then she said: But if there aren’t any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where’s the difference then? And if there’s no difference, both sides will be the same; it’ll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day without anybody stopping us. What was it all for then – Partition and all the killing and everything – if there isn’t something in between?

I don’t know what you expect, Ma, my father retorted in exasperation. It’s not as though you’re flying over the Himalayas into China. This is the modern world. The border isn’t on the frontier: it’s right inside the airport. You’ll see. You’ll cross it when you have to fill in all those disembarkation cards and things.

My grandmother shifted nervously in her chair. What forms? she said. What do they want to know about on those forms?

My father scratched his forehead. Let me see, he said. They want your nationality, your date of birth, place of birth, that kind of thing.

My grandmother’s eyes widened and she slumped back in her chair.

What’s the matter? my father said in alarm.

With an effort she sat up straight again and smoothed back her hair. Nothing, she said, shaking her head. Nothing at all.

I could see then that she was going to end up in a hopeless mess, so I took it upon myself to ask my father for all the essential information about flying and aeroplanes that I thought she ought to have at her command – I was sure, for example, that she would roll the windows down in midair unless I warned her not to.

It was not till many years later that I realised it had suddenly occurred to her then that she would have to fill in ‘Dhaka’ as her place of birth on that form, and that the prospect of this had worried her in the same way that dirty schoolbooks worried her – because she liked things to be neat and in place – and at that moment she had not been able quite to understand how her place of birth had come to be so messily at odds with her nationality.

My father could see that she was worrying over something. But Ma, he said, teasing her; why are you so worried about this little journey? You’ve been travelling between countries for years. Don’t you remember – all those trips you made in and out of Burma?

Oh that, my grandmother laughed. It wasn’t the same thing. There weren’t any forms or anything, and anyway travelling was so easy then. I could come home to Dhaka whenever I wanted.

I jumped to my feet, delighted at having caught her out – she, who’d been a schoolmistress for twenty-seven years.

Tha’mma, Tha’mma! I cried. How could you have ‘come’ home to Dhaka? You don’t know the difference between coming and going!

I teased her with that phrase for years afterwards. If she happened to say she was going to teach me Bengali grammar, for example, I would laugh and say: But Tha’mma, how can you teach me grammar? You don’t know the difference between coming and going. Eventually the phrase passed on to the whole family and became a part of its secret lore; a barb in that fence we built to shut ourselves off from others. So, for instance, when we were in our teens, often, when Ila was in Calcutta and we happened to meet an acquaintance who asked: When are you going back to London? we would launch into a kind of patter: But she has to go to Calcutta first; Not if I’m coming to London; Nor if you’re coming to Calcutta … And at the end of it, sobbing hysterically with a laughter which must have seemed as affected as it was inexplicable to those who heard it, I would say: You see, in our family we don’t know whether we’re coming or going – it’s all my grandmother’s fault. But, of course, the fault wasn’t hers at all: it lay in language. Every language assumes a centrality, a fixed and settled point to go away from and come back to, and what my grandmother was looking for was a word for a journey which was not a coming or a going at all; a journey that was a search for precisely that fixed point which permits the proper use of verbs of movement.

In November, when my grandmother was already busy with her preparations for the trip, there was another bit of news. Mayadebi had written to say that May, her old friend Elisabeth’s daughter, was coming to India for a holiday in December. She would be going to Delhi and Agra first, and then to Calcutta, where she would spend a few days before flying out to Dhaka with my grandmother. Mayadebi wanted to know whether she could stay with us while she was in Calcutta – she was sure she would be better looked after in our house than she would be in theirs in Ballygunge Place where Tridib’s bedridden grandmother did the housekeeping.

My grandmother handed the letter to my father, and he wrote at once to say that we would be glad to have May.

A fortnight later Tridib came to see us. He made a little desultory conversation with my parents, and then he announced that he would be going to Dhaka too, with May and my grandmother.

It seems a good time to go, he said, since everyone is going.

Then he turned to me and said: I’m going to receive May at the station when she gets here, ten days from now. Would you like to come too?

The first time May and I talked about her visit to Calcutta was on the day after Ila’s wedding.

The London part of Ila’s wedding was very simple: she and Nick signed a register somewhere, and in the evening Mrs Price invited a few people to dinner, including me. Nick and Ila were to leave for Calcutta the next day. Nick had decided that it would be fun to have a ‘proper’ Hindu wedding. The preparations were already under way in Calcutta: my mother told me on the phone that it promised to be one of the most lavish weddings she had ever seen. Ila’s parents were in Calcutta making the arrangements. They had stopped by in London on their way back from Tanzania because Ila’s father had decided to buy them a flat in London as a wedding present. Since he had never had a very high opinion of Ila’s judgement in practical matters, he’d wanted to take a look at the house himself before buying it. Nick had done a lot of preliminary research, and eventually they had settled on a two-bedroom flat on Clapham Common. Nick was very happy with it, and in fact so was Ila, although she claimed to be indifferent. Since Ila was working and could not spare the time, Nick had bought curtains and furniture and set up the flat so that they would have a place to move into as soon as they returned from their honeymoon. They were planning to go to Africa for their honeymoon; they were going to spend a week or so with Ila’s parents in Dar-es-Salaam, and after that they were going to drive around Kenya and Tanzania in Ila’s father’s car.

I remember very little of that evening at Mrs Price’s house. I remember I was carrying a present. It was a minute silver salt cellar which I had wrapped in coloured paper. I had bought it in an English shop of the kind which has a black signboard with very precise Times Roman lettering and a little gold monogram which says: By appointment to … It was the cheapest thing in the shop, although it had cost all of twenty pounds – every penny I had saved in my six months in England. And I almost lost it on the way to Mrs Price’s house.

I arrived early at the West Hampstead tube station, so I found a pub and bought myself a half-pint of beer, to pass the time. But then I got into a conversation with a Lebanese journalist; we bought a few rounds of beer for each other and when next I looked at my watch I discovered I was more than an hour late. I jumped to my feet, rushed out of the pub and began to run towards Lymington Road. I had not gone far when I heard the sound of feet pounding heavily after me. Looking around, I saw the Lebanese journalist panting up the road, waving. I stopped, and when he caught up with me he dropped the little paper-covered object into my hand and said: It had rolled into the ashtray.

Ila was very amused when I handed it to her. What is it? she said. Let me guess – it’s a miniature tiepin studded with diamonds; or, no, it’s a gold plate for feeding pet ants; or, yes, I know, it’s a thimble for a baby’s little finger …

Someone else came in and she turned away. I leant against a wall and watched her. She was smiling radiantly; laughing that wonderful tinkling laugh of hers as she spun around the room in a blaze of crimson silk, talking to her guests. I had never seen her as happy as she was that evening.

After a while May handed me a glass of wine and led me into the drawing room. It was full of people I didn’t know. May started to say something, but there was a crisis in the kitchen and someone called her away. I found another glass of wine, sank into an armchair and shut my eyes.

Then, dimly, I heard May saying: Wake up, wake up, it’s time to go home now, and I felt her hand on my arm. When I opened my eyes, she was looking anxiously down at me. There was no one else in the room.

I started groggily to my feet. I tried to speak but my throat felt like sandpaper and my voice had gone hoarse. Where’s Ila? I managed to say. Where is she?

May laid a steadying hand on my shoulder. Ila’s gone home with Nick, she said. They’ve got to pack – for tomorrow. And Mother’s gone to bed, and I’m about to go home myself.

I fell back into the armchair, biting my knuckles: I knew I had meant to say something to Ila before she left, I had been rehearsing it in my mind for days, but now I couldn’t remember what it was.

What will you do? May said.

I’d better get back to Fulham, I said, struggling to my feet.

May watched me quietly, arms folded across her chest, as I fetched my coat and scarf. When I said goodbye to her, she answered drily: I’m not wholly persuaded that it would be wise for you to go home right now, given your present condition.

Holding on to the mantelpiece, I said: I’m fine, really.

I have a plan which is in some respects superior to yours, she said, smiling. I think you should come home to Islington with me. I could make up a bed for you and give you something to eat. And tomorrow morning you can wend your way home, a renewed son of Bengal. I do beseech you to give this possibility some consideration, because you’ll only waste my morning if you try to make your way to Fulham right now – I’ll have to spend hours tomorrow, ringing all the hospitals to make sure you haven’t ended up in one of them.

I felt I ought to offer some counter-argument, but I found, to my relief, that I couldn’t think of any.

All right, I said. I’ll do as you say – if you’re sure it won’t mean too much trouble for you.

Good, she said. I’m glad you’ve decided to be sensible.

Since we had already missed the last tube, May decided to ring for a radio cab. It arrived within a few minutes, and she led me out of the house, locking the door behind her.

Once we were in the cab, I found myself breathing hard, my throat constricted by the kind of breathlessness that precedes hysteria. I rolled the window down and stuck my head out of it. The air was cold, sharp with the smell of vinegared chips and fish frying in a late-night takeaway. My ears went numb and my eyes began to water, but the sting of the air woke me; my body began to tingle the way it did after a mustard-oil massage on a winter morning: I could feel the skin, the hair, on my scrotum and my thighs, coming alive. It was as though a part of my body had discovered, in my drunkenness, a means of pricking me on to look for a means of mourning Ila’s marriage.

I felt a touch on my arm; May was looking at me, anxiously. Are you all right? she said. Shall I tell him to stop?

No – I shook my head. Then I picked her hand off my arm and rubbed it between mine.

Well, well, she said drily, drawing her hand back.

I leant across, slipped my arm around her shoulder and kissed her, running the tip of my tongue over her earlobe.

For a moment she was too startled to speak; then she gasped and her body went rigid. She put her hands on my chest and pushed me back.

You’re stinking of drink, she said, grimacing. I hope you’re not going to make any trouble.

I caught the driver’s eye in the mirror. He was a young West Indian. He was watching me, his eyes flicking from the road to the mirror and back again, expressionless. His hand snaked out to the dashboard when he caught my glance. He toyed with something and let it fall back with a clink. It was a knuckleduster: he smiled when he next caught my eye.

By the time we reached her house May was worried; I could tell from the awkwardness of her gestures as she paid off the driver. But I was merely curious; it didn’t occur to me that she was afraid, and that her fear might have had something to do with me.

Please don’t make a noise going up the stairs, she said, spacing the words out, speaking slowly. The landlady gets very annoyed if she’s woken up.

I’ll be quiet, I said. I reached out and ran a finger through her hair.

Stop that! she cried, jerking her head away. What do you think you’re doing?

Shh! I said. You’ll wake the landlady.

She tiptoed up the stairs, opened her door, and shut it quickly behind me.

Now you go over there, she said, pointing to her bed. Get into bed and go to sleep at once. I’m afraid I can’t give you anything to change into, so you’ll have to go to bed as you are.

At once? I said, grinning. I know you don’t mean that; not really. Please, she said. Her voice was hoarse now. Please go to bed.

I turned to look at the bed: it was small and narrow, piled high with quilts and blankets and covered with a green bedspread.

All of a sudden, an idea occurred to me.

But if I sleep over there? I said, with drunken cunning. Where will you sleep?

I’ll be all right, she said quickly. Don’t worry about me.

But I can’t help worrying about you, I said. Where will you sleep?

She went over to the bed and drew the covers back. It was perfectly made up, with clean new sheets and pillowcases, but it looked curiously unused. There were sachets of pot-pourri under the quilts, and the sheets smelt mustily of lavender and roses.

I don’t sleep on the bed anyway, she said, picking out the sachets of pot-pourri.

Oh really? I said. So if you don’t sleep here, whose bed do you sleep in?

She flashed me a quick, bright glance. I sleep over there, she said, pointing across the room, at the floor.

Where? I said.

Without answering, she opened a cupboard and took out a thin mattress, a couple of blankets and a sheet, and carried them across the room. Kneeling, she unrolled the mattress and spread it out on the floor. It was very thin; not much more than a sheet.

You can’t sleep there, I said in astonishment. I don’t believe you do. Why’ve you got a bed then?

Oh, that, she said. That’s for people to see – so that they won’t think me odd.

But you don’t even have a pillow, I said.

No, she said wryly. That was the hardest bit to get used to.

Why do you do it? I said. It must be horrible sleeping down there.

It’s not too bad, she said briskly. ‘No big deal’ as they say on television. After all, this is how most people in the world sleep. I merely thought I’d throw in my lot with the majority.

She sprang up and dusted her hands. All right, she said. Now go to bed – please.

Can I mortify my flesh too? I said. Can I sleep over there with you?

She began to laugh, the tension draining out of her face.

You’re going to feel really stupid about all this tomorrow morning, she said. I’m longing to see the look on your face when I remind you.

Please May, I said.

You idiot, she said, laughing. You’re just drunk; you don’t really want to – I’m old enough to be your spinster aunt.

I do, I said. I really do.

Well, we’ll see if you can bring yourself to say that when you’re sober, she said. And as for now, you’ll just have to go without, won’t you?

She pushed me gently towards the bed. Now, please go to bed, she said.

You’re laughing at me, I said, knocking her hand away. You shouldn’t laugh at me.

I reached out, took her face in my hands and pulled her towards me.

Please don’t, she said, her eyes widening with fear. Please.

Why not? I said. I kissed her on her open mouth, and slid my right hand quickly down her neck, into her blouse and under the strap of her brassière.

Stop! she cried, clawing at my face.

Why? I said. I pinned her against my body with my left hand, holding her tight, so that she couldn’t get her hands free. My right hand was deep inside her dress now, cupped around her breast.

With a tremendous effort, teeth clenched, she squirmed out of my grasp, threw herself backwards, and fell on the mattress. There was a ripping sound as her dress tore open and I was left clutching the air. When I looked down at her, she was crouching on the mattress, and her breast was hanging down, out of the rent in her dress, flapping against her ribs.

You bastard! she screamed. She flew off the bed and across the room and suddenly the lights went out. I heard her going across the room, to the bathroom, and I slunk over to the bed and crept in. I was asleep within a moment.

When I woke up next morning my head was throbbing and my mouth tasted of sour bile. I could hear plates rattling in the kitchen. I raised my head and saw May standing at the wash basin; she had changed into a pair of faded brown corduroy jeans and a white pullover, and her grey-streaked hair was tied in a ponytail with a rubber band. Her mattress and blankets were neatly rolled up, standing in a corner.

I was about to call out to her when an image of her, crouching on the mattress, trying to shield her naked breast, flickered before my eyes. I fell back on the pillow and shut my eyes, and slowly everything I had done and said the night before came back to me, in minute, ghastly detail.

She must have known I was awake; seen the sweat on my face. I heard her voice, low and gravelly, above me, saying: Well? Do you think you’re ready to eat something now?

When I opened my eyes, she was looking down at me, her face calm, grave.

May … I began. I could not look at her; I let my head fall.

Yes? she said coolly. I knew she was waiting.

I don’t know how … I began again. I raised my head with an effort; she was still looking at me, her gaze steady, unwavering.

I’m afraid you’ll have to think of some way of saying it, she said. That’s absolutely the very least I expect.

I’m sorry, I said. What else can I say? Is there anything I can do to show you how sorry I am?

She was still looking at me steadily, but now there was a twitch at the corner of her mouth.

Not feeling quite such a he-man now, may we surmise? she said.


Her lips twisted into a smile and she stretched out a hand and rapped me on the back of my head.

Go on, she said. Get out of bed and wash your face. Then I’ll see about making you some breakfast.

By the time I was out of the bathroom, a plate of fried eggs and toast and a glass of orange juice were waiting for me on her table. I was very hungry now; I remembered I had eaten nothing the night before. But May was still busy in the kitchen so I stood behind a chair and waited.

Don’t wait for me, she called out. Go on – eat. You must be hungry after all your exertions.

But what about you? I said awkwardly. Aren’t you going to have any breakfast?

I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you, she said. In fact, if I were you, I would address myself to the toast and eggs before they get cold and squishy. The bread is that wholewheat stuff we’re told we ought to eat nowadays – the trouble is it transmutes itself back into dough if it’s left to itself for more than a minute.

Without another word, I sat down and began to eat. Soon, she finished putting away her plates and stood leaning on the wall, watching me eat.

Some more toast? she said.

Yes, I said. But what about you? Aren’t you going to eat anything?

She handed me another slice and shook her head.

Have you had your breakfast already then?


I was puzzled now. So then? I said.

I’m not going to eat any breakfast today, she said.

Why not?

She laughed. Evidently, she said, in Calcutta they don’t know the old adage about curiosity and cats. The answer to your question is: I’m not going to eat any breakfast today because this is a Saturday.

What does that mean? I said, mystified.

I don’t eat anything on Saturdays, she said. It’s what you might call my fast day.

Your fast day? I said. Do you mean you fast every Saturday?

She nodded: That is exactly what I mean. But why? I said.

This is beginning to sound like a catechism, she said. Well, I fast because it occurred to me a few years ago that it might not be an entirely bad idea to go without something every once in a while: who knows what the future has in store for me – or you, or, for that matter, the human race? We may as well try and prepare ourselves. And since, as far as I’m concerned, most days of the week are pretty much alike, I thought it might as well be Saturday. Your toast’s going cold again; I feel I ought to warn you.

I can’t understand it, I said. I think you’re joking.

Oh please, she said. Don’t go on about it – it’s not worth the bother.

She went into the kitchenette and came back with a carton of orange juice.

I don’t know whether you have any plans for the day, she said, filling my glass. But as for myself I have to be out on streets collecting money for one of my several worthy causes. I’ve been assigned to the corner of Oxford Street and Regent Street – which is the prestige beat amongst us Good Workers, I’ll have you know – one of the most lucrative. You can come with me if you like.

What are you collecting money for?

For famine relief, she said. In Africa mainly. But who knows? Even you may benefit from it some day.

All right, I said, licking honey and butter off my lips. I’ll come with you. I may not be of much use, but I’d like to.

It’ll be very crowded, she said, and not particularly pleasant. I warn you.

Oh, I’m used to crowds, I said.

Well, we’ll see, she said. You may find this particular kind of crowd a little overpowering.

As it turned out, she was right. The moment we stepped out of the underground station at the intersection of Oxford Street and Regent Street, with our posters under our arms and collection boxes in our hands, I found myself awash, floundering in the torrent of shoppers, hurrying past, laden with plastic bags and packages. Before I knew it, I was swept away, and when I looked around all I could see was the tall windows of the department stores, glittering with lights and mannequins, and the stream of shoppers, stretching all the way down the street. Then I heard May’s voice and saw her, at the corner, laughing at me, and waving. It took a while before I could get back to her; I had to work my way around the stream, keeping my back to the shop windows.

So you’re used to crowds, May said, laughing.

She showed me how to hang the posters on the railing that divided the pavement from the road. Then she tapped my collection box and said: Go on – good hunting.

I stood at the edge of the flowing crowd and held out the box, hopefully. But after a quarter of an hour nobody had yet stopped to drop anything into it, and I began to wonder whether they could even see me. I stood back against the railing, in dejection, and watched May.

It was clear at once that she was skilled at the job; her usual tentative and rather shy manner had vanished, her voice had become loud and commanding. She would pick an individual in the crowd, catch his or her eye, step up and thrust out the box. Invariably, they dropped something into it.

I went back again to try out her technique, and soon people began to drop coins into my box too. A couple of hours later, with my box half full, I worked my way back to May’s side and sat down, using the box as a seat.

Tired already? May said.

Taking a break, I told her. Can’t we go somewhere and have a coffee?

No, she said. We’ve got work to do.

Tell me, I said, you must be quite senior in the Good Works hierarchy. You ought to be deciding where the helicopters go and things like that, shouldn’t you? Surely you don’t have to do this kind of legwork any more. This must be for rank novices.

I like doing this, she said. It seems, well, somehow useful.

She looked down at me and smiled, a wry, gentle smile that softened the harsh lines of her face.

Do you know, I said, that’s exactly how you used to look when I first met you. Do you remember? I was looking up at you then, just as I am now.

You had to look up at everyone then, she said, thrusting her collection box at a woman with a purple hat.

But do you remember? I said.

Yes, of course, she said. It was at Howrah Station, wasn’t it?

She had arrived on the Frontier Mail. My father, Tridib and I had gone to meet her.

I was very worried on the way to Howrah. How will you know her? I kept asking Tridib – you don’t even know what she looks like now, you haven’t seen her since she was a little baby.

But Tridib wasn’t worried. I’ll recognise her somehow, he said, you wait and see.

But of course I did worry: I didn’t know they’d exchanged photographs. Secretly, I was sure it would be I who’d recognise her first. This was because I had developed a theory about her name. Her name had puzzled me at first: I’d wondered why she had been named after a month. Then I read somewhere that English buttercups flowered in May. The rest was easy: obviously she was called May because she looked like a buttercup. I was certain I would recognise her first: I was the only person there who knew what to look for.

We were waiting on the platform when the Frontier Mail steamed in. A huge crowd spilled out of it and swept down the platform. We waited for half an hour, but there was still no sign of her. Tridib was less sanguine now; he was beginning to bite his fingernails. I was close to tears.

It turned out exactly as I had expected: I saw her first. She was standing patiently beside a tea-stall with her suitcase between her legs. I was stunned: she did not look remotely like anything I had expected. She saw me staring at her and waved tentatively. Then my father saw her too and waved back.

She picked up her suitcase and came running up to us. Dropping it on the platform, she shook hands with my father, and then looked down at me, from what seemed like a great height, and ruffled my hair, smiling, so that her blue eyes shimmered like water in a breeze.

I was no longer disappointed: I did not mind that she didn’t look at all like a buttercup – to me she was exotic enough.

Straightening up, she looked over my head and stepped back. I knew she had seen Tridib, so I didn’t turn, for I wanted to watch her face when she greeted him. She did not recognise him at first – I could tell, because she smiled in a general, inclusive kind of way, as though she had understood he was with us and was smiling for the sake of politeness. Then her smile faded away and her eyes widened. Raising a hand, she pointed at him and said: You’re not, you’re not …

I slipped away to one side so I would have a better view of the two of them.

Tridib was nodding at her, shyly; I could tell he was trying to smile. I didn’t blame him: the moment seemed so unbearably poignant I was sure in his place I would not have been able to smile either.

I can still see what May did next as though it were a film running through my head in slow motion; I remember how the noise and bustle of that busy platform seemed to evaporate; I remember the face of a man standing behind the tea-stall, gaping, with his mouth wide open; I even remember my father’s eyes growing large with disbelief.

She stepped up to Tridib and kissed him on both cheeks.

A battery of whistles shrilled out from every corner of the platform; a chorus of voices shouted – Again! Again! Tridib’s spectacles misted over and he looked as though he would burst with embarrassment.

Oh, I’m so sorry, May said. She was blushing. It’s obviously not the right thing to do here.

No, no, Tridib stammered. Thank you very much …

What are you staring at? my father snapped, waving his hands at the people who had gathered around us. Then he picked up May’s suitcase and shepherded us out of the station.

On the way back to our house Tridib told us how long ago, in London, Mrs Price had called him into the house one morning when he was sitting out in the garden and told him to go into the drawing room and take a look at May. Puzzled, he had gone up to her cradle and looked in. When he saw her, his hair had stood on end and he’d almost wet his trousers. He had run out of the room screaming: she had turned into an insect, her face had gone all black and shiny and her mouth had grown into a long black snout, like a pig’s.

Later they had explained, laughing, that it was just a gas mask – a baby’s gas mask, to protect her in case the Germans dropped gas bombs. But they hadn’t been able to convince him until they took it off and showed him her face, soft, pink and quite unchanged.

I stole a glance at May and my heart warmed to her when I saw she was laughing.

But May didn’t remember Tridib’s story; she was too excited to listen properly.

She made a face at the stream of shoppers flowing past us and said: We’ve done enough for today – I think we can leave the rest of these damned souls to wallow in the mire of their complacency for the moment. Come on, I’ll show you a little place around the corner where you can have a cup of coffee.

Does that mean you’ll be breaking your fast too? I said.

I’m sorely tempted, she said. But I’ll try and hold out a little bit longer.

We rolled up posters and breasted the quick-flowing crowd. Eventually, we made our way into a small lane off Regent Street, and May led me into a sandwich bar that had trays of salad and shrimps and salami displayed behind a misty window. Inside, it smelt of bread and mayonnaise; it was only a small, narrow room with a counter at one end, but it looked larger than it was because the far wall was a huge mirror, with a thin, ledge-like table built into it. May found a couple of high stools and we carried them across the room to the ledge at the far end. Then I went back to the counter to choose a sandwich and get myself a cup of coffee, and when I came back May was looking into the mirror, laughing silently.

What’s happened? I said.

She shook her head: I was thinking of that silly story about me in a gas mask, when I was a baby.

She hadn’t heard Tridib telling it, but she’d laughed anyway – she remembered that – she’d laughed because she was light-hearted with relief. She had been frightened all day, on the train. In fact, she had been frightened ever since she arrived in Delhi. She couldn’t remember why; there wasn’t any real reason. But she remembered her fear, how she had shut herself into her hotel room – it was like that time when she was a little girl, and she’d found herself alone at the deep end of a swimming pool. She was frightened because she was alone, because she didn’t know what to do. A woman with a mangled hand had asked her for money one morning, and she’d stood there paralysed wondering what to do. All she could do was give her money, and that wasn’t doing anything at all; it was an act of helplessness. She wasn’t used to being helpless; she was used to doing things. She always had been.

She had thought it would be a good idea to go to Delhi and Agra first; it would let him, Tridib, know she hadn’t come to India in answer to his summons, as it were. But now she couldn’t bring herself to go to Agra. She locked herself into her room in her hotel in Delhi, and lay in bed wondering why she’d come. Of course, there wasn’t a reason, no good reason at all that she could think of, except curiosity – curiosity about what lay beyond West Hampstead, a curiosity that had come to be focused on this man whom she’d never met. But lying there, frightened, in that hotel bed, curiosity seemed like no reason at all for travelling five thousand miles. It didn’t seem like a reason for anything – what was curiosity, after all? She tried to think about why she’d been curious, tried really hard, but it eluded her – she didn’t know what it was any longer, it had vanished.

Instead, she found herself wondering about Tridib. She tried to think of him waiting for her at the station at Calcutta, but she had no idea what the station would be like. She thought of a crowded version of Paddington, in London, and she saw him waiting for her at the bookstall. She saw herself walking up to him, putting out a hand, saying very demurely, How-do-you-do. But he didn’t respond – he smiled at her thinly, looking her over with bright, piercing eyes. He looked exactly as he did in the picture he had sent her – intense, saturnine, more than a little mad. And then she was really frightened: she didn’t want to meet a man like that alone, in a strange country. That was when she sent my father a telegram asking him to meet her at the station.

But then, when she saw him, looking over my head, he wasn’t at all like his picture. He looked awkward, absurdly young, and somehow very reassuring. Also a little funny, because his eyes were hugely magnified by those glasses of his, and he kept blinking in an anxious, embarrassed kind of way. She hadn’t been able to help throwing her arms around him; it was just pure relief. She knew at last why she had come, and she was glad. It had nothing to do with curiosity.

She was given our guest room – a large, airy room which looked out over the garden. I used to slip in there whenever I could. I would sit on the bed and watch her – writing letters, playing her recorder, brushing her hair. I loved the smell of her: the smell of shampoo and soap and something else, not perfume, I was sure, because I hated the smell of perfume. Something cool and breezy.

I leant over, picked at her pullover and sniffed it. She drew back, startled.

What’s this now? she said. What’re you up to?

I’m wondering whether you still smell the same, I told her.

And do I?

Yes, I said. You do. What do you smell of?

She sniffed her pullover herself and made a face: Sweat? Grime?

No – something else.

All right, she said, laughing. I’ll confess: it’s lavender water.

Later, in my adolescence, I was ashamed, nail-bitingly ashamed, of staring at her like that, sniffing at her, fingering her clothes surreptitiously. I used to squirm, thinking of how I had behaved, and then I would argue with myself, try to restore a sense of balance: she hadn’t minded, I would say, she probably liked the attention; maybe she hadn’t even noticed – after all, to her I was probably like a boy from Mars. But then I would be ashamed again, for I knew it wasn’t the truth. The truth was that she was kind – so kind that she had not spared herself the sight of herself seen through my eyes.

One evening we went for a walk. I led her down Southern Avenue, towards Gole Park, partly because I wanted to show her our old flat, and partly because I wanted to teach Montu a lesson. In school I had bragged to him about our visitor and he had laughed and refused to believe me. On the way we encountered the ‘cotton man’. He was, as usual, twanging on the instrument he used in the plying of his trade – the single-stringed tool, like a very long bow, with which he fluffed up the cotton in old mattresses and quilts. May stopped dead on the pavement when she saw him. What is that instrument? she asked me. I was trying to think of an answer when she said: It’s a kind of harp, isn’t it? I didn’t know what a harp was, but she was looking so eager, I nodded anyway. She was delighted that she had guessed right. Oh please, she said, do you think you could ask him to stop and play for us a bit?

I had no choice now. I went up to him and said: This foreign lady wants to hear the sound of your machine. Can you sit on the pavement and twang on it for a bit? He was taken aback, but he nodded, squatted on the roadside and duly plucked at the string. We listened for a while to its deep, monotonous drone. May was a little disappointed. It’s a rather limited instrument, she said. Isn’t it? But she gave the cotton-man five rupees and he went off, twanging happily.

I don’t remember any longer whether we did go to Gole Park in the end, nor whether I managed to score a point off Montu. But I do remember that when we got back home we found that the cotton-man had already been there and told my parents about his encounter with me and May. My father had laughed so much, he was hiccuping. I made faces at him, trying to get him to be quiet, but it was no use; the secret was out. I was afraid May would be angry with me when she found out; that she would not let me sit in her room any longer. But she wasn’t; she merely twinkled her blue eyes at me, ruffled my hair, and said: So you played a little joke on me, did you?

She won my heart.

Years later, when I told Ila about May and the cotton-man, she curled her lip and said: Sounds exactly like her. She has a kind of wide-eyed air about her even when she’s in London – like one of those worthy women who come down from small towns on weekend-return tickets.

But that wasn’t what I had meant at all. To me it seemed that May’s curiosity had grown out of a kind of innocence; an innocence which set her apart from all the women I knew, for it was not the innocence of ignorance, but a forthright, unworldly kind of innocence, which I had never before met in a woman, for among the women I knew, like my mother and my relatives, there was none, no matter how secluded, who was free of that peculiar, manipulative worldliness which comes from dealing with large families – a trait which seemed to grow in those women in direct proportion to the degree to which they were secluded from the world.

Often, especially during the first few days of her visit, May would take me along with her when she went out with Tridib. One morning Tridib drove us to the Victoria Memorial, which May had particularly wanted to see, in the old blue Studebaker. It was May who insisted on taking me along. I was glad to go, of course: there was nothing I liked better than to eat chaat and ice-cream at the Victoria Memorial. On the way, leaning over the front seat, I told May about all the nice things she would get to eat when we got there. When we reached the corner of Lower Circular Road and Chowringhee, I told her to shut her eyes. She humoured me, and when the immense marble edifice was directly in front of us, I cried: May, look!

I remember she cried out – My God! – so loudly that Tridib trod hard upon the brakes and the Studebaker came to a sudden halt at the foot of the huge, black statue of Queen Victoria. We found ourselves staring up at her, like maharajas at a durbar. Tridib and I began to laugh, because it was after that statue that Ila’s mother had been named, because she sat just so, with her hands planted regally on the arms of her chair, clutching her teacup like a sceptre. We started to explain the family joke to May but got lost somewhere halfway through. And then, at the same time, Tridib and I both noticed that May had turned her head, averted her eyes from the statue and the building.

She saw us looking at her and threw her door open. Come on! she said. Let’s have a look at that Memorial.

We went up to the wrought-iron gates and gazed at the odd little dome and stunted minarets. Then she put a hand on my shoulder and said: Let’s go, please, I can’t bear it.

She had gone very pale. Tridib put his arm around her, led her back to the car and helped her climb in. He gestured to me to get in and climbed in himself, behind the wheel. He reached absentmindedly for the ignition-key, but then he let his hand drop and turned to look at May. She was staring blankly at the dashboard, crouched in her seat.

He stretched his hand out, cupped her chin in his palm and turned her face towards him. May? he whispered. What’s the matter, May?

Her teeth were clenched; she would not look at him.

What’s the matter? Tell me.

It shouldn’t be here, she blurted out. It’s an act of violence. It’s obscene.

Tridib laughed and tilted her face up. Her eyes were wide open now, looking directly at him.

No it’s not, he said. This is our ruin; that’s what we’ve been looking for.

Then she laughed too, and put her hand over his, turned the palm up and kissed it.

Yes, she said. This will do for our ruin.

Then Tridib handed me a five-rupee note and told me to go and eat whatever I wanted. He said they would wait for me.

Why do I remember this incident when I have forgotten so much else? I don’t know. Because of the way they looked at each other, perhaps, the way he touched her and she kissed the palm of his hand, the way they smiled, as though there were a secret between them that I would never understand. I was jealous, achingly jealous, as only a child can be, because it had always been my unique privilege to understand Tridib, and that day at the Victoria Memorial I knew I had lost that privilege; somehow May had stolen it from me.

I remember it besides, because that day May changed that place for me. I never went back there again in that old mood of cheerful expectancy. I knew there was something else in that building now, some other meaning, a meaning I couldn’t fathom, but which I knew existed, despite me. It became a haunted site: I could not go there without hearing Tridib’s soft voice whispering: This is our ruin; this is where we meet. I would wonder about those words; they would ring in my head, and I would try to take them apart, see what they meant, always without success, until that afternoon in that sandwich bar, when she looked into the mirror and told me about his letter, the letter about ruins.

One evening my father decided that May ought to see Diamond Harbour. Since he was busy himself, he suggested that Tridib take the two of us there for a drive on Sunday. I don’t remember what Tridib said, but I knew he was reluctant to take me.

I will go, I shouted at him. You can’t go without me.

Then May drew me into her arms, hugged me, and said: Of course you’ll come with us. I wouldn’t dream of going without you.

So Tridib had no choice but to agree.

He was in one of his odd, abstracted moods when he came to pick us up on Sunday morning. He took a wrong turning within minutes of leaving our house, and didn’t even notice. If I hadn’t pointed out his mistake we would have ended up in Dalhousie.

You see, May said, giving me a congratulatory pat. We wouldn’t have got there without you.

Soon we were out of the city, rattling along as fast as the ancient Studebaker would go. They were not talking very much, so I chattered about my friends, Montu and the rest of them, and what we got up to in school. Neither of them paid any attention to me. May stuck her head out of the window, letting the wind blow through her hair, and exclaimed over the pretty green rice fields, rippling in the breeze. Tridib was busy battling with the Studebaker’s stiff old steering wheel.

After we’d been driving an hour or so, somewhere on a stretch where the road cruises high over the rice fields on a raised embankment, we saw a small, indistinct shape ahead of us sprawled out on the middle of the road. Tridib was driving quite fast now, and he had to swerve sharply. May and I craned our necks out of our windows. I caught a glimpse of a twisted animal shape, smeared with blood, and shut my eyes immediately. I heard May shout: It’s a dog! It’s still alive!

Oh? said Tridib, glancing at the mirror as the car picked up speed: I didn’t see it.

Aren’t you going to stop the car? May said, her voice rising.

Stop the car? Tridib said, puzzled. Why? What good will that do?

It’s still alive, she said, shouting out the last word. We ought to go back for it.

Why? Tridib said. There’s nothing we can do for it.

The car was still accelerating.

May folded her hands in her lap and allowed herself to sink back in the seat as though she were going to sleep. Her voice was very calm when she turned to Tridib and said: If you don’t stop the car right now, I’m going to open the door.

Tridib shrugged, stopped the car, and turned it around. Thank you, May said, laying her hand on his arm, but he shook her hand off, his face completely impassive.

He brought the car to an abrupt halt a few feet from the dog. May jumped out and ran across the road. Tridib and I followed.

The dog was lying on its side, with one half of its back at a right angle to the other. It was whimpering and a ribbon of blood was trickling slowly out of its mouth.

It’s back’s broken, May said dully. It must have been hit by a car.

She grimaced, turning her head away, and a tremor seemed to run through her whole body. Then she took a deep breath, forced herself to look up again, walked over to the car and came back with the large leather handbag she always carried. Opening it, she took out a penknife and a handkerchief.

What’s she going to do? I shouted in panic to Tridib. Stop her: don’t let her do it.

Tridib’s hand shot out and gripped her wrist. You can’t do this, he said. It’s too dangerous. It can still bite; it’s probably rabid.

May brushed his hand off without a word. She opened out the handkerchief, wrapped it around her left hand and knelt beside the dog. It began to snap at her now, trying to raise its head high enough to lunge at her, its blood-flecked eyes rolling wildly. She made a quick pass at its muzzle with her handkerchief-wrapped hand, but the dog jerked its head up suddenly and slashed at her hand with its foaming jaws. May managed to snatch her hand back in time, but the dog’s teeth ripped a corner off her handkerchief. She was trembling now, and sweat was pouring off her face. She fell back on her haunches, breathing hard. The dog dropped its head back on to the road, but it kept its eyes fixed on her, and made a small rattling sound, too weak to be called a growl, deep down in its throat.

Let it be, May, Tridib pleaded. There’s nothing we can do.

She threw him a look.

Can’t you help a bit? she said. All you’re good for is words. Can’t you ever do anything?

Tridib rose and circled around to a position where the dog could no longer see him. Then, squatting, he edged towards it, crab-like. The dog heard him and tried to twist its head around, and failing, began to whine softly. Then Tridib lunged at it, gripped its neck and head firmly with both hands, and pinned it to the tarmac. The dog’s front legs scrabbled wildly as it tried to squirm out of Tridib’s grip, but it was very weak now, and Tridib was able to hold it without much effort.

May leant forward and clenched its mouth shut with her left hand, still wrapped in the torn handkerchief. Then she flicked the penknife open with her thumb, pushed its head back, pressed the blade to its jugular vein and began to hack at the skin. The knife made a dull sawing sound as it scraped against the dog’s wiry hair. The front half of its body was twitching furiously now; its legs were clawing at May’s feet. May made a final, determined jab with the penknife and sprang back. There was a spurt of blood from the jagged cut in its neck. Its twisted body twitched convulsively and then it lay still.

May let the penknife fall and stood up. Her hands and arms were spattered with blood. She scrambled down the side of the embankment to the flooded rice fields below and plunged her arms deep into the water. She stayed there a long time, washing her hands, her arms and her face.

Tridib and I were sitting in the car when she climbed back up to the road. She got into the car, shut the door gently, and said: Sorry about all that. She was trying to be brisk and hearty but she could not keep the strain out of her voice. Tridib started up the car, and then she added: Anyway, it’s done now, so let’s be off to your harbour.

Without looking at her, Tridib said: You shouldn’t apologise; you did the right thing.

He turned the ignition key, and when the car began to rattle he cleared his throat and said: I want you to promise me something.

What? she said lightly. That I won’t murder any more dying dogs?

No, not that, he said, smiling. He raised his chin and ran his forefinger down his neck, like a barber stropping a razor.

Promise me, he said, that you’ll do it for me too, if I should ever need it.

I think she laughed, though uneasily.

It was dusk when we got back to Calcutta. Tridib dropped me at our gate and said: Tell your parents May and I are going out for dinner. I’ll drop her home later.

I need a coffee too, now. May said. I’ve fasted enough for today.

She went to the counter and came back with a cup of coffee and a sandwich.

We went to that old house of theirs, she said, stirring her coffee, looking at me in the mirror.

We went straight up to his room. It was the first time we’d ever really been alone together. He switched on the light and stood in the middle of the room, just looking at me. It was such an oddly monastic room – a naked light bulb, stacks of books piled up like old newspapers on the floor, a couple of mats and pillows strewn around – nothing at all to suggest that a grown man sought his comfort there.

He went over to the window and made a great business of opening it, fumbling with the latch, pushing it open and pulling it shut again. Then he turned around – he looked like a boy, so thin, with his small, angular face and his short hair and bright black eyes. He made a rueful kind of face and said something, about how long he’d been hoping …

I had nothing to say. I went up to him and put my hands on his shoulders – he wasn’t much taller than me – and we looked at each other for a long, long time. He was terribly shy, really painfully shy. He wanted to say something – about love or something like that – and I wouldn’t let him, I didn’t want to hear it.

And you? I said.

She picked the plastic spoon out of the cup and twirled it between her fingers. What about me? she said.

Were you in love with him?

I don’t know, she said. How can you expect me to know? What right have you got to ask me that? What do you think I’ve been asking myself these last seventeen years? I don’t know whether any of it was real, whether I was in love with him, or merely fascinated by the sense of defeat that surrounded him. I don’t know whether everything else that happened was my fault: whether I’d have behaved otherwise if I’d really loved him. What do you think I’ve been doing ever since, but trying to cope with that guilt? I don’t know, I simply don’t know – how could I know when the time was so short and there were so many questions? I was so young; I didn’t know what was happening to me.

And so? I said.

She turned away so that I couldn’t see her eyes, even in the mirror.

All I remember, she said, is him saying – you’re my love, my own, true love, my love-across-the-seas; what do I have to do to keep you with me? But it’s just a whisper.

She picked up the posters and the collection boxes and rose to her feet. You take that, she said, thrusting her uneaten sandwich at me. You can wrap it up and take it home. I must go now; it’s late, and I’ve got a meeting to attend. Besides, I’ve got to hand all this money in.

We left the bar together and walked down the lane, in silence. She was awkward now, uncomfortable with me, and once we were back amongst the crowds on Regent Street, she went ahead, leaving me behind. I caught up with her at the entrance to the underground station.

She stopped to look for me, the coin boxes clanging together in her hands, smiling an absurd little smile of apology when her posters jabbed people in the ribs as they streamed past her on their way down to the station. She looked worried and distracted, but the light had caught her blue eyes, and the wind had blown her grey-streaked hair across her face, and suddenly she seemed much younger, very much more like the May I had looked up at all those years ago on that platform at Howrah Station.

I don’t know why I’ve told you all this, she said, when I reached her. I’ve never told anyone else ever before.

Of course not, I said. There was no one else you could tell. No one knew Tridib like I did.

A poster dropped out of her arms and I picked it up and tucked it into her armpit again.

Well, she said, flustered. I must go now; I’m late. The meeting’s probably started already.

Wait, I said. I had to clear my throat before I could go on.

May, I said. About last night: I’m really sorry. I don’t know what else I can say.

That’s all right, she said gruffly. I was a bit scared at the time, but I didn’t really mind – not much, anyway. I was amazed, actually – that anybody should think of me like that.

Really? I said.

Yes, really, she said, smiling.

She gave my hand a squeeze, her coin boxes rattling, and then she was gone.

A few days before I flew back to Delhi, I went to Lymington Road one last time to say goodbye to Mrs Price.

One morning, earlier that week, there had been a knock on my door, not long after dawn.

It was September again now: the short English summer was long gone. It was very cold in the mornings in the ramshackle house in Fulham where I had taken a room. I heard the knock through several layers of blankets. Ignoring it, I turned over and tried to withdraw my extremities from the chilly edges of the bed. The small gas fire in my room had gone out; it worked on five-pence coins, and my stock had run out hours ago. The knocking would not go away, and eventually I had to get out of bed. The room was like an refrigerator, ludicrously so, the window frosted over like an ice-tray. I pulled on my overcoat and hobbled over to the door.

It was Kerry, the American girl who lived in the room next to mine. She was an art student from Seattle and she was spending six months in London before going on to Rome and Paris. We had become good friends in the few months we had spent in the house. There were about half-a-dozen other people in the house, students and itinerants of various kinds, but most of them kept to themselves and few stayed longer than a month. Kerry and I had first met late one July night, on the landing outside our rooms. We had both burst out of our rooms upon hearing a series of loud thuds in the third room on our floor, where a bearded young Scandinavian had recently moved in. It was an oddly disturbing, rather sinister sound, like the cracking of a whip. It was punctuated by long, low moans. I suggested we call the doctor, but Kerry smiled at me wisely and shook her head. No point in doing that, she said. They seem to be enjoying themselves in there. I listened again, and it was obvious soon that she was right. So, instead, she and I went down to the kitchen where she brewed a pot of rosehip tea. She took me to be Chinese at first, perhaps because of my eyes, and though she tried to sound enthusiastic when I explained I was Indian, it was clear that she was disappointed in some way. Later I discovered that she was interested in China because she was on a diet which forbade the consumption of milk and dairy products; having read somewhere that the Chinese didn’t like milk, she had conceived an immediate empathy with that country. Eventually I succeeded in persuading her that I didn’t like milk either, and we became good friends.

Now Kerry was dressed in an ultramarine track suit, and in between knocking on my door she was jogging up and down our landing, her bunched fists pounding on her thighs. She was a good eight inches taller than I, and considerably more powerfully built, with a large, square-jawed face.

Hi! she said. There’s a call for you downstairs. A lady.

She began to giggle, looking at my overcoat. Jesus! she said. You poor little guy; you’re really cold, aren’t you.

She stopped jogging long enough to give me a hug.

You shouldn’t be living in a primitive country like this, she said. You need to be in some place with central heating and hot water, like the States.

You’re right, I said, and followed her as she sashayed down the stairs into the kitchen, where our payphone hung on the wall. She taught me that wonderful word, sashayed, and now, when I think of her, I always see her sashaying along the seaside, somewhere near Seattle.

It was Ila on the phone: it was the first time she had rung me since she and Nick had returned from their honeymoon, some three months before.

What took you so long? she said.

I began to explain, but she cut me short.

Listen, she said, her voice softening. I woke up yesterday and realised that you’re due to go back home in a week or so, aren’t you?

Yes, I said. I added something about coming and going.

Never mind about that, she said breathlessly. Have you packed? Have you made all the arrangements? You must have thousands of things to do. What can I do to help?

Stung by the note of urgency in her voice, I said: You’ve known for months I’d be leaving next week – why the big surprise?

That’s true, she acknowledged. I suppose I did know. But I hadn’t actually thought about it, about what it would mean for you. I woke up yesterday and remembered, and then I thought of all the things I’d have to do if I were going home, and I got into such a panic just thinking about it, I decided I must ring you, absolutely at once. But I couldn’t catch you at home yesterday, so I thought I’d ring early this morning.

I couldn’t help laughing. I was sure she was telling me no more than the bare truth, for it was true that in those rare moments when the clouds of her self-absorption parted, she was granted glimpses of such startling clarity into the practical exigencies of other people’s lives that for a while they assumed an urgency in her mind that was no less pressing than it would have been had they been her own. I could quite easily believe that she had ruined Nick’s egg that morning, and even perhaps poured sugar in her muesli in her anxiety about my departure.

Have you paid all your book-club bills? she said. Returned all your credit cards?

I laughed: she knew perfectly well I didn’t have a credit card.

What about having your things shipped? she said. Have you arranged all that? Let me help; I know exactly what to do.

I don’t have much luggage, I said.

Oh, she said. So there’s nothing I can do?

I thought of her then, with the phone in her hand, scratching her chin, crestfallen, and suddenly the resolve I had made, to wound her a little by excluding her from this last intimate act of departure, crumbled, like all the plans I had ever made for avenging myself upon her.

Yes, I said, there was one thing she could do to help me – I wanted to visit Mrs Price to say goodbye, and maybe she could arrange it, perhaps even come with me. She responded with a sigh of relief. Yes, of course, she said; she would like to, nothing better. She would talk to Mrs Price and ring me back.

And so it was arranged that on my last Saturday in England, three days before I caught the Thai Airways flight back to Delhi, Ila and I would go to tea with Mrs Price. And Nick? I asked, when she rang me up to tell me. Wouldn’t Nick like to come too? She had already thought of that. Nick would come to Lymington Road later, she said; he would meet us there. She laughed: she wanted to have me to herself for a little while, before hubby arrived.

Where shall we meet, then? I asked, and while she was trying to think of a place, I said quickly: What about Trafalgar Square, on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields? She burst into laughter. Anyone would think you were writing a script for a bad film, she said; but then she added: All right. I’ll meet you there.

I arrived early at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields: I wanted to take a last, long look at Trafalgar Square, a look that would be long enough to keep it alive in my mind for years. I found myself a clean place on the steps, near one of the pillars, where the tourists would not trip over me, and no sooner had I sat down than the clouds in the sky parted, as if to my command, and a great, golden shower of sunlight poured into the square. The traffic became a blur, a frame for the white canvas of the square; for the tourists’ clothes as they sat eating their sandwiches and feeding the pigeons at the foot of Nelson’s Column, as they swarmed over the great stone lions and danced on the parapets of the fountains. In exultation, the organ of St Martin-in-the-Fields boomed out the first rising notes of a Bach toccata, and at the same moment I saw her, Ila, picking her way through the crowd that had gathered at the steps of the National Gallery. She was wearing a long coat of thick, silver-tipped fur. Her head was thrown back against the collar, her face a dark smudge against the shimmering silver. She was walking slowly, looking down at the pavement, preoccupied, oblivious of the people who stopped to stare at her. I pushed myself back against the pillar, willing her not to see me; I wanted to watch her walking, unselfconscious, for as long as possible. She stopped at the zebra crossing, beside a group of rainbow-haired punks. She seemed to remember something, and, reaching into her pocket, she took out a pair of sunglasses and put them on. Then she walked slowly across the road, her hands deep in the pockets of her coat. She looked up at the church, spotted me and smiled. A couple of tourists standing beside me gasped. She was so improbably, absurdly beautiful, I began to laugh. Still laughing, I went down the stairs, and holding her back at arm’s length so that I could look at her properly, I took her sunglasses off.

She tried to snatch them back, but it was too late, for I had already seen her eyes: they were red-rimmed and swollen, as though she had been weeping through the night.

What’s happened? I cried in shock. What’s the matter, Ila?

Nothing’s happened, she snapped. Come on, let’s go, we’re late already.

It took us three-quarters of an hour to get to Lymington Road. Mrs Price opened the door for us. She seemed to have grown even smaller and frailer than she was when I had met her last. She led me into the drawing room while Ila went to the kitchen to make the tea. There were sandwiches waiting for us, covered with a damp cloth, as well as a cake. She had baked it herself, she said; it was a Cornish heavy cake, her father’s favourite kind. While she cut me a piece she asked me about Mayadebi and the Shaheb. I had little to tell her, except that Mayadebi was moving back to their old house in Raibajar – alone, because the Shaheb had no intention of leaving his clubs and going to live outside Calcutta. She listened carefully, but it was evident that she was already very tired; I could see that she was wondering how she was going to get through another half-hour with us. Ila noticed, too, when she came in with the tea, and as soon as we had drunk a cup of tea each, she asked me tactfully whether I would like to look around the house and the garden one last time. I nodded quickly, and Mrs Price, relieved, waved us out of the room.

Out in the hall, Ila asked me whether I would like to go out into the garden for a bit. But I already knew where I wanted to go.

No, I said. Let’s go down to the cellar.

Without a word, she crossed the hall, opened the door to the cellar and switched on the light. The camp beds were still out, where we’d left them at Christmas; we had forgotten to fold them away when we left. Now they were covered with a fine film of dust. Ila settled, cross-legged, on one of the beds, and beckoned to me to sit beside her.

So here we are, she said. Back in Raibajar.

I sat on the hard edge of the camp bed and looked around the cellar – at the piles of old trunks and suitcases, the stacks of paperbacks, at the garden tools that lay rusting in a corner. Slowly, as I looked around me, those scattered objects seemed to lose their definition in the harsh, flat light of the naked bulb; one of their dimensions seemed to dissolve: they flattened themselves against the walls; the trunks seemed to be hanging like paintings on the walls. Those empty corners filled up with remembered forms, with the ghosts who had been handed down to me by time: the ghost of the nine-year-old Tridib, sitting on a camp bed, just as I was, his small face intent, listening to the bombs; the ghost of Snipe in that far corner, near his medicine chest, worrying about his dentures; the ghost of the eight-year-old Ila, sitting with me under that vast table in Raibajar. They were all around me, we were together at last, not ghosts at all: the ghostliness was merely the absence of time and distance – for that is all that a ghost is, a presence displaced in time.

So when Ila turns to me and buries her face in my shoulder, it is that other eight-year-old Ila – and I, my own other – both of us sitting under that table in Raibajar. She has her arms around me and she is crying because she has just finished telling me the story of Nick Price and Magda. She is crying her eyes out, for some reason I cannot understand. We hear the door to our secret underground room opening, and I beg her to stop crying, or they’ll find us, plead with her, but she cannot keep back her sobs. And then the door shuts, mysteriously, and now, frightened, she stops, and we hold on to each other, because we know that someone is in the room with us, and we do not know who it is, or what.

But then there he is, only Tridib, looking down at us, smiling, asking what we’re doing down there in the dust, and I begin to explain that we’re playing Houses, that we’re not in Raibajar, but in London, in Mrs Price’s house in Lymington Road. I show him the way in, through the garden, past the cherry tree – he has a little trouble getting in – but once I’ve brought him in through the front door and shown him the drawing room, he knows exactly where to go. Of course. He knows the house much better than I do; he lived in it as a boy.

When we are in the drawing room Ila begins to cry again. What’s the matter? Tridib asks her. But she won’t answer; she is rubbing her fists in her eyes, sobbing. So Tridib puts his arms around us and leads us back into the garden, and makes us sit cross-legged on the grass, under the cherry tree. All right now, Ila, he says. Tell me why you’re crying.

But that only provokes a fresh outburst of tears from Ila, and I, losing patience with her now, tell Tridib that it’s only because of a stupid story she’s thought up, about her doll, Magda, and Nick Price. I tell him the story as Ila told it to me, and because Ila is still crying, I turn upon her at the end of it, and yell at her to be quiet – not to be a damn-fool girl, it was just a story, about a stupid little doll, and there she is, crying her eyes out as though she’s been living in it.

Tridib laughs and shakes me by the neck and tells me not to shout at her. Everyone lives in a story, he says, my grandmother, my father, his father, Lenin, Einstein, and lots of other names I hadn’t heard of; they all lived in stories, because stories are all there are to live in, it was just a question of which one you choose …

But that does not console Ila: she only cries harder.

Tridib scratches his head, wondering what to do, and suddenly he says: Yes, come on, let’s go in, down to the shelter, and we’ll all listen to a story, a nice one – in fact the best in the world.

Ila’s curiosity is stirred, and at last she forgets her stupid crying and we get up and follow him in through the front door. On the way he explains that it’s a very special day today, the 25th of September, 1940, his ninth birthday. And that is why we’re going to be told a story – it’s a birthday present from Snipe, he’s been promised it as a reward for all those trips down to the chemist’s on West End Lane to buy Dentesive and Sanatogen and Rennie’s digestive tablets. But it’s special for another reason too – because they are leaving next week, Tridib, his father and his mother, they are leaving to go back to Calcutta, his father is quite well now, completely recovered. Tridib can’t bear to think of leaving London behind, but it’s true – they’re leaving next week, they’re going home.

But still, at least there’s Snipe’s story to look forward to tonight. Snipe has promised that it’s going to be a nice, long story, a good, proper, Middle English story; he knows it well, he says, because he’s been teaching it to his students for years.

Tridib thinks he’s earned it: today has not been a good day for him.

Early this morning his mother told him that he was not to leave the house today, under any circumstances. But when he asked why, she wouldn’t explain: just do as I say, she said. It was so unreasonable. How could she really expect him to stay in all day long, doing nothing? Especially when there was so much going on outside.

Soon after breakfast, when his mother went to help his father shave, he slipped out of the front door, through the little wicket gate, and then, turning left, sprinted down towards the cricket field on Alvanley Gardens. There was a gun emplacement there, where square leg used to be, if you were bowling from the pavilion end. One of the men who manned the huge anti-aircraft gun had been in India with the army. He could speak a few words of Tamil, but he didn’t know what they meant and wouldn’t tell Tridib how he had come to learn them. He would let Tridib watch sometimes, when he and the others were polishing the gun: a huge steel-grey thing, as big as a tree. And then, two nights ago, a bomb had dug up a huge fifteen-foot crater in the cricket field, a bare fifty yards from the gun emplacement. It was at extra-cover if you were batting facing the pavilion.

He crawled under the fence and ran across the field to the crater. It had changed overnight. It had filled up with water, because of the rain. The piles of earth that had been thrown up all around it had turned into mud. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled up to the rim of the crater. He got a shock, almost fell in, and then laughed: his own face was staring back at him from the water.

Then he heard his mother’s voice again, running down the road, shouting his name. He answered, without meaning to, and regretted it at once, for she came running in after him, pinched his ear and dragged him back to the house. And when she had shut the door, she turned around and slapped him, hard. She had never slapped him before. He was so shocked, he couldn’t even cry.

Mrs Price heard the slap and came running out of the kitchen. Oh, poor Tridib! she said, when she saw him rubbing his cheek. She led him into the kitchen, and whispered in his ear: She didn’t mean to – it’s just that she’s very worried today.

She was worried about the journey that lay ahead of them, Mrs Price told him. But even more than that, she was worried about the toffee tins. Toffee tins? said Tridib. Yes, she explained. Toffee tins.

Yesterday, Snipe had shown them an Air-Raid Precautions notice which said: Tins of toffees are believed to have been dropped by enemy aeroplanes. They are shaped like handbags and some have coloured tartan designs, with a puzzle, on the lid, marked Lyons Assorted Toffee and ‘Skotch’ and bearing the name of J. Lyons and Co.

They wouldn’t have paid much attention if it hadn’t been an ARP notice. But even Snipe who was usually so dismissive of rumours hadn’t been able to laugh away an ARP notice. And besides, he’d point out, it made sense, in a way, to demoralise the population by getting at the children. As for Mayadebi, she had convinced herself that Tridib was going to find one of those toffee tins – he was more or less the only child left on Lymington Road; all the rest had been sent out of London. He was certain to come upon one of those tins, she’d worried, wandering around all day long, as he did. That was why she hadn’t even dared to warn him about them – she was sure he’d go out to look for them if he knew.

So he had to stay at home while Snipe went off to work, and his father went to Guy’s Hospital to see his specialist. Then Mrs Price went out too; to see if she could get anything special for dinner.

She was back an hour later, exhausted, having managed to buy a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs and a pound of lamb’s liver. She dumped her bag on the kitchen table and sat back to look at it.

What on earth are we going to do about your birthday dinner? she said. This won’t even make a proper meal.

I don’t mind, Tridib answered. Snipe’s giving me a nice birthday present anyway.

And then, because Mrs Price didn’t know about his present, Tridib told her about the story Snipe had promised him.

But, of course, in the event he got a birthday dinner and other presents as well. Mrs Price looked in her larder and found a few odds and ends with which she managed to put together a fairly hearty meal (no boiled cauliflower leaves today, dear) and a Cornish heavy cake (with invisible Blackout candles, Snipe said). And he got a jacket and shirt from his mother and father and a nice old pair of brass opera glasses from Mrs Price, to watch the planes with, and best of all a brand new Bartholomew’s Atlas from Snipe. So altogether he’d done quite well, even before the story. But he couldn’t linger over his presents, as he’d have liked, because the Alert sounded while they were still at the dinner table.

They knew it was going to be a bad night as soon as they heard the first planes. They could tell from the noise as the planes flew over the house – in massed groups, their engines chugging along in a steady determined rhythm. Then the gun in the cricket field in Alvanley Gardens opened up, and at once the pictures on the walls and the cups on the table began to rattle. Soon Snipe led them down to the cellar, carrying May in his arms, and they sat on their beds, looking at the ceiling in the light of the oil lamp, and wondering how long the raid would last. There was a very loud explosion somewhere near by: it shook the floor of the cellar and nearly toppled the oil lamp off its shelf. May began to cry, and Tridib, just when he was beginning to wonder how much longer he’d be able to hold out without crying himself, remembering Snipe’s promise: Please Snipe – the story – you promised …

And what of the story?

I see it in the mouths of the ghosts that surround me in the cellar: of Snipe telling it to Tridib, of Tridib telling it to Ila and me, in that underground room in Raibajar; I see myself, three years later, taking May, the young May, to visit the house in Raibajar the day before she left for Dhaka with my grandmother and Tridib; I see myself leading her into that underground room in that old house, showing her the table under which Ila and I had sat when she first introduced me to Nick; I tell her how Ila cried that day after telling me the story of Magda; and now May talks to me about Nick, and later I show her how Tridib had come into the room while Ila was still crying on my shoulder, crying for her brother Nick, and I tell her how Tridib asked me what the matter was with Ila, and I tell him, so to stop her crying he crawls into the house on Lymington Road and leads us down to the cellar, and tells us the story Snipe had once told him.

What story? May said. I tried to remember, tried very hard, but somehow it wouldn’t come back to me. But later that day, back in Calcutta, in Tridib’s house in Ballygunge Place, when Tridib asked me what I’d shown May in Raibajar, I said: I took her to that underground room – do you remember, where …

… Where I found Ila crying, and you sitting beside her? he said.

And to stop her crying you told us a story, remember?

What was the story? said May. I want to know. Tell me.

Tridib seated himself on a mat and folded his legs.

It was a wonderful, sad little story, he said. I forgot all about the air raid while he was telling it to me.

Where did it happen? I asked. Which country?

Ah, said Tridib. That’s the trick, you see. It happened everywhere, wherever you wish it. It was an old story, the best story in Europe, Snipe said, told when Europe was a better place, a place without borders and countries – it was a German story in what we call Germany, Nordic in the north, French in France, Welsh in Wales, Cornish in Cornwall: it was the story of a hero called Tristan, a very sad story, about a man without a country, who fell in love with a woman-across-the-seas …

That was on the day before they left for Dhaka: it was the last story Tridib ever told me.

And I heard his voice again, in that cellar, while Ila cried, sitting beside me on the camp bed.

She was crying very hard. I had never seen her cry like that: her whole body was racked by the effort of her sobs; at times it seemed as though she was going to retch into her handkerchief.

I put an arm around her and held her tight against me. I knew; I’d known from the moment I’d seen her eyes at Trafalgar Square that she wanted to tell me something. I knew she was waiting for me to ask her what it was, but also knew I wouldn’t: I did not want to know; I did not want to offer a sympathy I did not feel.

It was a while before she stopped crying, and even after that she lay with her head against my chest, hiccuping, unable to speak.

I’m sorry, she said at last. I don’t know what came over me.

I waited, in silence.

It’s Nick, she said.

All right, I said. Go on, tell me. What’s he done? Forgotten to buy you roses or spilt your morning tea?

You bastard, she said, pushing herself upright. Don’t you dare talk to me like that.

Go on, I said. Let’s get it over with. You may as well tell me now. What happened? Did you creep back home in the still of the day and find him in bed with another woman?

She gave me a startled glance and turned away again, to look at her fingernails.

Could I ever have imagined, she said, that I, Ila Datta-Chaudhuri, free woman and free spirit, would ever live in that state of squalor where incidents in one’s life can be foretold like teasers for a bad television serial? I suppose not, but there you are. Yes, you’re right, more or less – you’ve seen it all already, on TV. That’s more or less exactly what happened.

She had telephoned him at home, one afternoon, soon after they got back from their honeymoon in Africa. She used to miss him dreadfully while she was at the office; miss being with him all day long, miss his voice, the smell of him. But she’d made it a rule not to telephone him too often; she didn’t want him to feel that she was being too possessive.

But that afternoon she gave in. She picked up the phone in her office, when the others happened to be out for a bit, and dialled the number, hoping he’d be at home. He usually stayed in, or so he said, since he wasn’t working yet. The phone rang for a while, and just when she was about to ring off, a female voice answered – breathless, as though they’d had a playful tussle. The voice said: ‘Allo, with a French kind of intonation. Ila was so taken aback, she found herself saying: Could I speak to Nick Price please? as though she were asking her bank manager’s secretary for an appointment. The voice giggled and said: ‘Oos speaking please?

His wife, Ila answered, and slammed the phone down.

Despite myself, I began to laugh. Oh, sad little Ila, I said. Your sins have finally come home to roost.

I wish it were that, she said, with a tired little shake of her head. I wish I could say to myself, why, I used to do that kind of thing too, it doesn’t mean anything. But I never did, you know. You see, you’ve never understood, you’ve always been taken in by the way I used to talk, when we were in college. I only talked like that to shock you, and because you seemed to expect it of me somehow. I never did any of those things: I’m about as chaste, in my own way, as any woman you’ll ever meet.

I was ashamed now. I dropped my eyes and said: Did you ask him about it?

Yes, she said. He was waiting for me when I got home. He was very calm, very cool. He had obviously thought it all out. I think he’d wanted me to find out, in a way; maybe he’d even guessed I’d ring and asked her to answer the phone. He wanted to make a point; to let me know that I shouldn’t take anything for granted just because we’re living in a flat my father’s bought for me. And because I have a job and he doesn’t.

She turned to look at me, her eyes hysterically bright, her mouth twisted into a smile.

He told me, she said, that the woman who’d answered the phone was from Martinique. He’d met her in a pub or something and he’s been seeing her for a year or so, since long before we were married. He’s got an Indonesian woman in line too, somewhere. And there’s me, of course.

Why does he do it? I said.

She began to laugh, gritting her teeth, while tears ran down her cheek.

That’s exactly what I asked him. He said he just likes a bit of variety; it’s his way of travelling.

I could think of nothing to say; nothing that would console her for the discovery that the squalor of the genteel little lives she had so much despised was a part too of the free world she had tried to build for herself.

You must leave him, Ila, I said.

I can’t, she said. Can’t you see that I couldn’t?

Why not?

She began to laugh. It was her familiar, high-spirited laugh, and I found myself laughing with her.

Don’t you see? she said. I wouldn’t leave him if he moved a whole bloody massage parlour from Bangkok into the house. He knows that perfectly well; he knows I love him so much I could never leave him.

And yet, I discovered soon enough that she had invented her own ways of punishing him.

Half an hour later, when Nick arrived and came into his mother’s drawing room, she announced, laughing, to me and Mrs Price: Do you know? Nick’s had another of his ideas. He’s trying to get my father to buy him a partnership in a warehousing business.

She gave him a long look, her face going hard in a way I had never before noticed in her. Of course, she said, it takes hard work to make a success of a thing like that, and Nick, well …

Nick’s face crumpled, and he looked down at the carpet, hanging his head.

Looking at him, I tried to think of the future as it must have appeared to him: of helpless dependence coupled with despairing little acts of rebellion. I wanted to get up then and hold him, chest to chest, his shoulders to mine. But, of course, I didn’t – he did not know of the part he had played in my life, standing beside me in the mirrors of my boyhood: I knew he would not have understood.

I remembered what May had said about him in that underground room in Raibajar: He’s different; he’s not like us.

That was on the day before they left for Dhaka.

On 2 January 1964, the day before they left for Dhaka, my grandmother received a letter. It was from Mayadebi. It had taken ten days to reach Calcutta because it had come through Delhi by the diplomatic bag.

Mayadebi wrote that she had not been able to visit their old house yet, because she had been very busy with one thing and another, and besides, the house they were living in now was a very long way from Jindabahar Lane. Also, as Indian diplomats their movements were restricted – as we would understand. But she had been making enquiries and she had had a stroke of good luck; she had discovered that one of the High Commission’s drivers knew someone who lived in their old house – a mechanic called Saifuddin who had set up a workshop inside their old courtyard.

A workshop! gasped my grandmother. Inside our courtyard! What’s become of the old jackfruit tree?

The driver had brought Saifuddin to see her. He was a nice man, very well spoken and polite; he was from Motihari in Bihar. He’d come to East Pakistan with nothing at all, other than a large family, and he managed to set up a thriving little business. The driver said he was one of the best mechanics in Dhaka.

She had asked Saifuddin about their old Jethamoshai, referring to him as Shri Goshtobihari Bose. He hadn’t understood who she was talking about at first; apparently they knew him as Ukil-babu because until very recently he had still been drafting wills and affidavits, and even going to the High Court once in a while. But now, Saifuddin had said, he was completely bed-ridden, and his mind was wandering a lot – he often didn’t recognise people he had known for years. Luckily for him, he was looked after by a family to whom he had given shelter years ago. But they were very poor – their only income was from a cycle-rickshaw. They probably wouldn’t be able to support the old man for very much longer. It was providential, Saifuddin had said, that they, his relatives, had come to Dhaka now, a part of God’s design. Perhaps now the old man would be able to spend his last days with his relatives, in peace and comfort, as he deserved.

So, wrote Mayadebi, my grandmother’s intuition had been right: it was clear that they would have to do something for the old man. But they could decide about that once they were together in Dhaka.

In the meanwhile, perhaps she could bring a little present for Saifuddin, since he had been so helpful – maybe a nice Indian sari for his wife.

My grandmother handed the letter around with an air of quiet, unsurprised triumph: she had known all along. But once everyone else was out of earshot, she shook me gleefully and cried: Oh I’m so glad Maya hasn’t been back to the old house yet – I didn’t want her to be the first.

Later that evening, she announced that she wanted me to spend the night in her room: she was already missing me, she said. I was hoping she would ask me to: I liked sharing her bed and listening to her stories. But tonight there was another, more serious matter at hand too. When I had her to myself, I had decided, I would go over all my instructions about the plane once again. I had an uneasy feeling she had not been listening the last time.

So, as soon as I saw her climbing into bed beside me, I started at the top of my list: did she remember about buckling her seat belt? And keeping an air-sickness bag close at hand? Not to speak of the parachutes under the pilot’s seat, did she remember? She laughed and told me to go to sleep, but I said no, I wouldn’t, not without a story. So she began on one of her Dhaka stories, one about the old house and the people who lived down the lane. But her voice trailed away slowly, and when she got to Kana-babu’s sweet-shop, she forgot all about me and climbed out of the mosquito-netted bed and drew her favourite armchair up to her window. When I fell asleep she was still there, staring out at the smudged blackness of the lake.

When I woke up, our house was already convulsed with the preparations for their departure: my mother was in the kitchen, supervising the packing of the three different kinds of shandesh we were sending with them; my grandmother was in a fever of excitement, choosing a sari for Saifuddin’s wife, locking her cupboards and making sure she’d taken all her medicines with her. Only May seemed to be untouched by the excitement. I couldn’t understand how she could sit in her room playing her recorder like that, as though it were an ordinary morning.

We left for Dum Dum airport at noon. By the time we arrived at Ballygunge Place to pick up Tridib my grandmother was giggling like a schoolgirl. She couldn’t believe she was really going to fly off into the sky.

At Dum Dum, after we had said our goodbyes and they had been swallowed into Immigration and Customs, we went up to the terrace on the roof to watch their plane take off. We had to wait half an hour before we saw them, three tiny figures on the tarmac. They knew we were watching and they walked towards the plane with all the shy self-consciousness of amateur actors making an entry on a big stage. When they reached the stairs that led up to their brand new Fokker Friendship aircraft, my grandmother turned and waved in our direction, her sari a white blur against the black tarmac. We waved back, although we knew she wouldn’t be able to see us. Then a hostess bowed them through a hatch-like door and they vanished from sight. But minutes later I saw a face appear in one of the windows, like a smudged cameo, and waved wildly at it, certain it was my grandmother. The door was slammed shut, the stairs were wheeled away, and the plane began to move. It turned slowly and trundled down the runway with an ungainly, waddling motion. I stopped waving: it was hard to believe that this graceless, plodding thing would actually have the temerity to thrust itself into the sky. It came to a wide apron, turned again, and pointed its nose down the runway. It was stationary for a long moment; its energy seemed to seep away. A hush fell over the airport. Then the propellers started up; in an instant they were spinning so fast they melted into the shimmer of the heat on the tarmac. I was still watching my grandmother’s window – it was the third from the door at the back. I was sure I could see her, smiling, waving into the glass. Then the whole plane shook as a shudder ran down the fuselage. It began to roll down the runway, engines screaming, its silver body flashing back the glare of the midday sun. Its gracelessness was gone; the power of the engines had given the long fuselage the lean muscular tautness of the neck of a heron in full flight. It was shooting down the runway now; my grandmother’s window lengthened into a long, white blur. Its nose lifted, very gently, and then, suddenly, unbelievably, the whole of its huge metal body was riding the sky.

As the plane circled above us, my mother allowed herself, at last, to breathe a long, deep sigh of relief: till that moment she had not really believed that my grandmother would really go to Dhaka.

My father sighed too, but in a different sort of way, and said: Yes, it’s a good thing they’ve gone.

There was something in his voice that made my mother ask: Why? Why particularly?

He scratched his ear and said: People say there’s going to be trouble here. I’m glad they’ve gone abroad – especially May – they’ll be far away from it over there.

What trouble? I asked.

My mother gave him a frown and a quick shake of the head, so he turned me around, pointed at the plane and said: Nothing. Nothing that you would understand.

We watched the plane until it disappeared over the horizon.

Years afterwards, Robi told me that the first thing my grandmother said to Mayadebi when they met at the airport was: Where’s Dhaka? I can’t see Dhaka.

I tried then to see Dhaka as she must have seen it that night, sitting by her window. But I hadn’t been to Dhaka, and in any case her Dhaka had long since vanished into the past. I had only her memories to go on, and those put together could give me only a faint, sepia-tinted picture of her other arrivals in Dhaka, decades ago: a picture in which I could see dimly in the middle distance, a black steam engine, puffing smoke, and a long line of carriages vanishing into the right-hand corner; in the foreground a deeply shaded platform, porters and vendors, and a crowd of relatives jostling to meet the new arrivals as they step out of their carriage; in the background, perhaps, a glimpse of the minarets of a mosque. I can guess at the outlines of the image that lived in her mind, but I have no inkling at all of the sounds and smells she remembered. Perhaps they were no different from those in any of the thousands of railway stations in the subcontinent. Perhaps, on the other hand, they consisted of some unique alchemical mixture of the sounds of the dialect and the smell of vast, mile-wide rivers, which alone had the power to bring upon her that comfortable lassitude which we call a sense of home-coming.

At any rate, the one thing she was completely unprepared for was the bare glass-and-linoleum airport, so like the one she had just left. Nor was she prepared for the drive to the Shaheb’s house, along a straight road, flanked by tall eucalypti and the occasional suburban bungalow.

May liked it. She said: What a pretty road, it’s so much more open than Calcutta. But as for my grandmother, she kept saying: I’ve never seen any of this. Where’s Dhaka?

The Dhaka she was thinking of was the city that had surrounded their old house.

She had talked to me often about that house and that lane. I could see them myself, though only in patches, for her memory had shone upon them with the interrupted brilliance of a lighthouse beam. So, for example, I could see Kana-babu’s sweet-shop at the end of their lane with absolute clarity, I could even see the pink cham-chams stacked in their trays, the freshly pressed shandesh heaped in orderly mounds beneath the cracked, discoloured glass of the counter; I could hear the buzzing of the flies, and I could see Kana-babu sitting hunched behind his cash-box, scratching his stomach, the same Kana-babu who had once caught their cousin stealing a rosogolla and poured a whole potful of sticky syrup down the front of his shorts: I could see all that, because people like my grandmother, who have no home but in memory, learn to be very skilled in the art of recollection. For me, Kana-babu’s sweet-shop at the end of the lane was as real as the one down our own road, and yet I could not tell whether the lane itself was paved or unpaved, straight or curved, or even whether it had drains running along it.

Mayadebi’s new house was at the other end of the city. It was in Dhanmundi.

Because of everything Robi told me about it, that name, Dhanmundi, became one of the secret sounds of my childhood, like the drumming of the monkey-man’s dug-dugi, and the tinkling of the bells of the Magnolia ice-cream cart in the stillness of hot afternoons; it became a part of my own secret map of the world, a map of which only I knew the keys and the co-ordinates, but which was not for that reason any more imaginary than the code of a safe is to a banker.

I could not have escaped the name Dhanmundi even if I had wanted to; in the early seventies it was everywhere, in books, in newspapers. Sometimes it seemed to me that everything that happened in the capital of new-born Bangladesh happened in Dhanmundi: that was where ministers issued their statements, and unnamed but reliable Western diplomats confided in reporters; that was where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman lived and it was there that he died, one morning, when he stepped out on to a balcony to confront his uniformed assassins, unable to believe that they, clad in the uniforms he had given them, would turn their guns upon him, their Liberator. Reading those reports in the newspapers, I used to wonder whether, if Robi had still been there, thirteen years old, he would have heard those first bursts of gunfire which brought down the Sheikh’s bodyguard, and have run to the roof and seen the old man’s body crashing to the driveway, leaking blood, before Nityananda or his mother came running up the stairs behind him, and clapped their hands over his eyes and whispered breathlessly in his ears: Don’t look, don’t look – it’s just a game.

But in 1964 Dhanmundi was barely a blueprint for the fashionable suburb it was later to become. It was a nearempty wasteland of flooded foundation trenches, boundary walls that enclosed nothing but dust and grass, and a few huge walled-in houses that rose like catafalques above streets which existed only by common consent since they had no surfaces to mark them out from the fields that surrounded them. And so my grandmother, looking, perhaps, for sweet-shops and lanes, could not help exclaiming when she saw the Shaheb’s house in Dhanmundi: But this is for foreigners; where’s Dhaka? And Tridib could not resist the malicious pleasure of pointing out: But you are a foreigner now, you’re as foreign here as May – much more than May, for look at her, she doesn’t even need a visa to come here. At that, my grandmother gave May a long wondering look and said: Yes, I really am a foreigner here – as foreign as May in India or Tagore in Argentina. Then she caught another glimpse of the house and shook her head and said: But whatever you may say, this isn’t Dhaka.

Still, it was a good house to be thirteen in: a wonderful place for Robi. It had a large roof, wide open and breezy, as good a place for flying kites as any one could wish for; you had only to hold up a kite on that roof and the wind would snatch it out of your hands, its glass-coated string singing, and in an instant it would be so far away you would hardly be able to see it and wouldn’t have the time to try, because it was all you could do to hold on to the string.

Like all the other houses in Dhanmundi, theirs had a high wall, running all the way around it. At the back, just outside the wall, there was a pond where fishermen would come in the afternoons to try their luck. Usually it was a quiet, tame little pond, but in the monsoons, when the great cyclones of the Bay of Bengal struck Dhaka, that pond would turn purple, mirroring the sky, and it would rise with the wind and hurl itself on the house and go shooting through the driveway, out into the streets beyond. And when that happened, Nityananda, their cook, would run out into the flooded driveway, armed with an old sari, and drive the fish into the puddles in the garage and scoop them up. Sometimes he would keep the fish there for days, in an earthenware pot, and run into the garage and pick out a fresh one whenever he wanted.

At the back was an enclosed courtyard, ringed with coconut palms and papaya plants. Nityananda kept a few ducks and chickens there, and once a week he would act out a play for Robi in that courtyard. This one’s been a bad boy this week, he would say, grabbing a chicken by the neck. Then he would raise his sickle and shout an invocation – Joi Ma Jagad-janani – and the blade would flash and the chicken’s head would jump off its neck and lie at Robi’s feet, its beak open in surprise. Robi would run upstairs then, but, unable to resist, he would stick his head through the railings of the veranda at the back, and watch spellbound as the headless chicken flapped around the courtyard. Nityananda would know that Robi was watching, and he would rock back on his heels, squatting on his haunches, and stroke his moustache and puff at his biri, and after a while he would look up at Robi, his bright, black eyes twinkling, and point at the spinning carcass, and say. Do you see – that’s what comes of being a bad boy.

It was Nityananda too who introduced Robi to the garden in front: showed him how to suck the watery nectar from the stems of canna lilies, and taught him the trick of catching dragonflies, by pinching their wings together between finger and thumb. But best of all, he taught Robi to climb the mango tree in the middle of the garden. It was a big tree, very difficult to climb, with a trunk that grew straight and smooth out of the earth for a good eight feet or so before it divided into branches. It took a lot of work, but he mastered the trick just in time. And the first thing he did, when he and his parents got back from the airport with their visitors, was scramble up the tree. When he had climbed into the highest branches he shouted down to my grandmother: Look, mashi; look where I am!

She looked up, and when she saw him she said wistfully: I wish I could do that too – maybe I’d be able to see Dhaka from up there.

That evening, sitting out in the garden before dinner, my grandmother asked Mayadebi when they were going to the old house to fetch their uncle.

Whenever you like, said Mayadebi, and my grandmother, eagerly, cried: Tomorrow – we’ll go tomorrow! The sooner the better.

But then, to her surprise, the Shaheb interrupted: No, he said. This isn’t a good time to go there. The house is in the heart of the old city and in the Chancery we’ve heard there’s going to be trouble there. I don’t think you should go there now.

My grandmother would have despised herself if she had given in to the Shaheb. She leant forward, shook his knee and said: If there’s going to be trouble, that’s all the more reason to get him out while there’s still time. I’ve come all the way to Dhaka for his sake and I’m not going to put up with any delays now. I’m not going to be scared off by a little trouble. We have to get it done as soon as possible.

But really, the Shaheb protested, spilling his whisky in his agitation. Really – it’s not safe to go there now. I can’t permit it. You must wait a few days.

He appealed mutely to Mayadebi to reason with her.

Of course we’ll go soon, said Mayadebi calmly. We’ll go a few days later. A week won’t make any difference to anyone.

My grandmother thought this over. We’ll wait till next week, she said. Until Thursday. Thursday is a good day. But that’s all – not one day later.

I do not remember how long they had been gone when I discovered, one morning, that there was trouble in Calcutta.

I remember my mother had a busy morning that day; perhaps it was one of those days when my father had to leave early for work. Whatever it was, she did not have time to listen to the morning news on the radio and she sent me down to the corner, with my satchel and water bottle, to wait, as usual, for the school bus.

Years later, I used to wonder at my mother’s odd relationship with her little transistor radio. It was given a place of singular honour in her room: it stood on the same shelf on which she kept her framed pictures of her dead parents. She never missed the morning news if she could help it: those bulletins were the liturgy of the ritual of our breakfast. In college I used to say proudly to my friends: my mother’s really interested in politics – she hasn’t missed the morning news in years. Of course, I was merely trying to impress them; I knew perfectly well, even then, that she had no interest at all in the kind of politics that is spoken of over radios. Only I did not recognise that quality as a virtue then, and I could not have brought myself to admit, fattened as I was on promises of bureaucratic progress, like everybody else of my age, that for her, listening to he news was a simple rule of survival. But she missed the news that morning, so I went out to wait for my bus, as usual.

I had to wait a long time. I remember I was jealous when the other two boys who usually caught the bus with me did not turn up. I wasn’t surprised, however, because that was the day the first cricket test match of the 1964 series against England was to begin at Madras. I assumed that they had been able to persuade their parents to let them stay back to listen to the radio commentary. Knowing my mother, I hadn’t even bothered to ask.

I paced up and down the pavement as I waited: I was worried about the match. The morning newspaper had said that Farouk Engineer was injured and would not be playing; in his place they had included someone called Budhi Kunderan. This was worrying news: Engineer was our hero, the swashbuckler of our side. I’d never heard of Kunderan: without Engineer I couldn’t see that we had a ghost of a chance. It was infuriating to wait when I was so eager to talk about the match with my friends on the bus.

Then there it was, our large blue schoolbus, making its stately way towards me, down the avenue. In my impatience, I ran towards it, waving my water bottle. But then, as it drew nearer, something about it began to puzzle me and I stopped. I knew it was the right bus – I could see the name of my school painted boldly on its side – but I could tell there was something wrong. Then it struck me: usually, by the time it reached me, the bus was full, and there were heads and arms sticking out of every window. But today the bus seemed curiously empty: there were no heads outlined against the windows.

The bus stopped and I climbed in. There were only a dozen other boys in it, and they were sitting on a bench at the back, huddled together against the emptiness of the bus. They seemed relieved to see me, although they were none of them my friends. Normally we wouldn’t have so much as acknowledged one another, but today they moved up as soon as they saw me and made room for me beside them.

No sooner had I sat down than I noticed that their eyes, all dozen pairs, had strayed towards my shoulder. What’s the matter? I said uneasily. What are you staring at? I looked back quickly and saw that it was my water bottle that had attracted their attention.

On my right was a plump boy called Tublu who sometimes played cricket with us in the park. What’s the matter? I said to him. Haven’t you seen a water bottle before?

His mouth fell stupidly open and he said: So you’ve brought one too? Before I could answer he pointed at one of the younger boys and whispered in my ear: He hasn’t brought any water today; his mother’s given him a bottle of soda.

He glared at the cowering boy, and ordered him to tell me why he hadn’t brought any water.

I still remember the tearful, sing-song sound of the boy’s voice as he told us that his mother hadn’t let him drink any water that morning, because she’d heard that they had poured poison into Tala tank, that the whole of Calcutta’s water supply was poisoned. I remember how we listened to him and made him repeat what he had said. And somewhere in the rubble exhumed along with that memory there lies another, much smaller detail: I remember we did not ask him any questions – not who ‘they’ were, nor why ‘they’ had poisoned their own water. We did not need to ask any questions; we knew the answers the moment he had said it: it was a reality that existed only in the saying, so when you heard it said, it did not matter whether you believed it or not – it only mattered that it had been said at all. Everything fell into place now – the emptiness of the streets, the absence of the other boys – it all fitted. There were no more questions.

Then Tublu said loudly: We’ll know at Gole Park.

Why? someone asked.

Because that’s where Montu gets on the bus, he said. He’ll know; he’s a Muslim.

He turned to me and smiled. Of course, he said, Montu’s a friend of yours, isn’t he?

I remember how my throat went dry as I tried to think of an answer.

Not since we moved away, I lied. I haven’t met Montu for months.

I was looking out of the window when we got to Gole Park, watching the spot, right beside the tubewell, where Montu usually waited for the bus. He wasn’t there. Stealing a quick glance down his lane I saw a gap in his curtain and I knew he was watching us. I was very glad he hadn’t come.

Soon after, one by one, we unscrewed the caps of our bottles and poured the water out.

Our first lesson that morning was in mathematics. Our teacher was an elderly Anglo-Indian lady called Mrs Anderson, a tall thin woman who wore skirts and had short, grizzled hair. There was only a handful of boys in the classroom and Mrs Anderson did not bother with the ritual of calling out our names. This caused a stir amongst us because it was yet another departure from normalcy, and by then we were all silently concentrating our will on keeping everything as normal as possible. But Mrs Anderson rapped on her desk with a pencil, frowning over the top of her glasses. Chastened, we opened our books and settled down. Soon, her soothing, familiar voice was telling us how we could use the letter ‘X’ to represent any number we liked. In a short while the day seemed almost normal, the lesson no different from any other.

My desk was next to a window. Half-way through the lesson, I thought I heard a noise, somewhere in the distance: It was faint and scattered, like the crackling of a short-wave radio-station. I wasn’t quite sure I had heard anything at all, when I saw Tublu, who was sitting next to me, looking up too. I mouthed the words: What is it? But he didn’t know either: he made a face and shrugged. Surreptitiously, keeping an eye on Mrs Anderson, I raised my head and looked out of the window. The noise was louder now. It sounded like voices, many voices, but it wasn’t the orderly roar of a demonstration. We were used to demonstrations going past our school; it happened every other day and we never gave them a thought. But this was different – a shout followed by another and another, in a jaggedly random succession, and then, suddenly, silence, and just when they seemed to have died away, there they were, one voice, followed by a dozen, and then again a moment of silence.

There is a uniquely frightening note in the sound of those voices – not elemental, not powerful, like the roar of an angry crowd – rather, a torn, ragged quality; a crescendo of discords which you know, because of the slippery formlessness of the fear it creates within you, to be the authentic sound of chaos the moment you hear it.

The others could hear it too now; every head in the class had turned to look out of the windows.

By an effort of will, Mrs Anderson tried to shut the noise out. She began to read louder, rapping on her desk for our attention, filling the room with her voice. But those other voices had grown louder too now; we could hear them surging past the high walls of our school.

Mrs Anderson could no longer ignore them. She laid down her book and marched around the room shutting the windows. The glass panes of our windows had been painted green to keep out the summer sun. Now we sat trapped in a verdant darkness while Mrs Anderson’s voice boomed and echoed through our classroom, explaining the principles of algebra.

Mrs Anderson was visibly relieved when the bell rang. She told us sternly to look through our history books, and not to make any noise at all, and then she hurried out of the class.

We threw the windows open as soon as she had left. We couldn’t see far because our school had very high walls. The mob had gone away; everything seemed quiet. Then we heard the bells of a fire engine, and a minute later it sped past us. Somebody pointed into the distance and, looking up, we saw a column of grey smoke rising into the sky. We couldn’t tell where the fire was.

Wonder who’s batting? someone said. Nobody answered: we had forgotten about the match.

Then Mrs Anderson’s voice bellowed at us and we dashed back to our desks. She glared at us, with her hands on her hips, but we could tell she wasn’t really angry, as she ought to have been. Rapping on her desk, she told us that our classes were being cancelled for the rest of the day; we were going to be sent home in buses.

Why? someone asked. She frowned at him and said: Don’t you want a holiday?

We left the room in silence and filed into the playground. The whole school had lined up outside. The massive steel gates swung open. At once, there was a ripple of excitement at the head of the line; the boys in front were craning their heads, looking around in surprise. When we reached the gates we saw that a contingent of armed policemen had surrounded the school.

What are they doing here? I muttered to Tublu.

You idiot, he said. Can’t you see. They’re guarding us.

We climbed into the buses in awestruck silence. This time, automatically, each of us picked a seat beside a window. As soon as the bus pulled away from the school we could tell that something on those streets had changed in the couple of hours since we had last driven through them: we saw that street twice every day, but now it seemed somehow unfamiliar. The pavements, usually thronged with vendors and passers-by, were eerily empty now – except for squads of patrolling policemen. All the shops were shut, even the paan-stalls at the corners: none of us had ever seen those shut before. Then the bus turned off into another, narrower street which we didn’t know. The pavements were not quite as empty now; we could see knots of men hanging around at corners. They would look at our bus speculatively as we passed by. They were quiet, watchful; they seemed to be waiting for something.

Thank God, I said to myself, that Th’amma and May aren’t here.

Tublu shook my elbow and pointed at a rickshaw that had been pulled across the mouth of a narrow lane. The others saw it too and turned to stare. We couldn’t take our eyes off it, even after we had left it far behind. There was no reason for us to stare: we saw rickshaws standing at untidy angles in the streets every time we went out. And yet we could not help staring at it: there was something about the angle at which it had been placed that was eloquent of an intent we could not fathom: had it been put there to keep Muslims in or Hindus out? At that moment we could read the disarrangement of our universe in the perfectly ordinary angle of an abandoned rickshaw.

Then our bus turned towards Park Circus, and suddenly those voices were all around us, those same ragged bursts of noise, but much louder now. Looking ahead through the windscreen, I saw a scattered mob milling around the Circus. As I watched, one limb of the mob broke away from the main body and snaked out towards us. And then I was thrown off my feet as our bus, brakes screeching, came to an abrupt halt.

Wrestling with the wheel, the driver spun the clumsy old bus around. The bus lurched as two of its wheels climbed the pavement, and then it was back on the road again. The gears meshed with a loud metallic screech, and slowly the bus began to move ahead.

The men who were racing after us were no more than a few feet from the back of the bus now. We ducked under our seats as stones began to rattle against our windows. Then the bus picked up speed and we left them behind. When we got up and looked back, some of them were laughing, with their arms around each other’s shoulders.

At the next corner the driver swung the bus into a street that none of us recognised. Tublu, who was the nearest to the driver, got to his feet and told the driver that that wasn’t the way to his house, he wouldn’t be able to find his way back.

Without checking his speed, the driver shot out an arm and shoved Tublu back into his seat.

None of us looked at each other. We could not recognise the streets we were careering through. We did not know whether we were going home or not. The streets had turned themselves inside out: our city had turned against us.

Tublu began to cry. One by one the rest of us gathered around him. At any other time we would have laughed, but now we listened to him in silence, appalled. He was really crying; we could tell – not for attention, nor because he was hurt. There was an ocean of desolation in his sobs. He cried like that all the way home, for all of us.

It would not be enough to say we were afraid: we were stupefied with fear.

That particular fear has a texture you can neither forget nor describe. It is like the fear of the victims of an earthquake, of people who have lost faith in the stillness of the earth. And yet it is not the same. It is without analogy, for it is not comparable to the fear of nature, which is the most universal of human fears, nor to the fear of the violence of the state, which is the commonest of modern fears. It is a fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the spaces that surround one, the streets that one inhabits, can become, suddenly and without warning, as hostile as a desert in a flash flood. It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the subcontinent from the rest of the world – not language, not food, not music – it is the special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one’s image in the mirror.

When Robi woke up on Thursday morning, he lay in bed for a long time listening carefully to the twittering of the sparrows in the mango tree, the buzz of the traffic on the road that led to the airport, the clanking of milkcans on a bicycle going slowly down their lane. He could not hear so much as an echo of a discordant note in that familiar medley of morning sounds. He got up and went to the window: if there was going to be trouble, he wanted to be the first to see it. He wasn’t very sure what ‘trouble’ was: there hadn’t been much of it in Canada or Romania, which were the only two places he had lived in that he could remember, apart from his boarding school in north India – and there wasn’t much trouble there either, at least not on their side of the walls.

The expedition to the old house depended on whether there were signs of trouble this morning or not. Of course, he didn’t care much whether they went or stayed at home to watch the ‘trouble’ – it would be exciting either way. But he had a feeling they would be going – despite the rumours, there hadn’t been any trouble in the last few days, and in the meanwhile Mashi had grown very impatient. At dinner last night his father had had to give in when she insisted; he had said, all right, they could go, but they would have to take one of the High Commission’s security guards with them.

Robi leant out of the window and looked down. The garden was bathed in the tranquil winter sunlight: he could see dragonflies’ wings glinting between the petals of the cannas and hollyhocks. Shading his eyes he looked down the road: Mr Haque their neighbour was out in his garden with a cup of tea, sniffing his roses as usual. No sign of anything that could be called trouble. Satisfied, he went down and announced to May and Tridib that everything was all right; they would be able to go after all.

Later, one of the details Robi remembered about that day was that my grandmother changed her sari twice before they left the house. She came down to breakfast wearing a plain but crisp white sari, and announced that she would like to leave as soon as possible. But when their Mercedes came back from the Chancery, with a security guard and a driver, she took a long look at herself, went upstairs, and came back a quarter of an hour later, dressed in a white sari with a green border. So now, ready to go at last, they got into the car. Then my grandmother exclaimed that she had forgotten the present she had brought for the mechanic’s wife and rushed into the house. But when she came back again, she was, dressed in a white sari with a red border. He remembered how his mother had laughed at her as she got into the car and said something about her being as anxious as a bride going home for the first time. He remembered too how she smiled back and retorted: You’ve got it wrong – I’m going home as a widow for the first time.

Robi scanned the streets as they drove through them, watching alertly for signs of ‘trouble’. But he was soon disappointed: at the New Market, for instance, all the shops were open and the streets were crowded, as usual, with people and cycle-rickshaws and cars. No one bothered to give their CD number-plated car so much as a second glance.

The driver pointed out the sights to my grandmother as they went by: the Plaza picture palace with a fifteen-foot hoarding of Ben Hur hanging outside, the Gulshan Palace Hotel, Ramna Race Course, and so on.

It’s all wonderful, she said. But where’s Dhaka?

Then, gradually, soon after they had crossed a bridge, the sights changed; the streets grew narrower and more crowded, the houses older, more dilapidated. My grandmother was alert now, sitting on the edge of her seat, looking out, sniffing the air. The car turned into a large, bustling square, and all of a sudden she gripped Mayadebi’s arm and cried out: Look, Shador-bajar, there’s the Royal Stationery, do you remember? Mayadebi threw an arm around her, and then, holding on to each other, laughing, brushing away tears, they explained to May that they had always shopped for textbooks there when they were schoolgirls. It had looked exactly the same then, Mayadebi said as they drove past the shop, except that the signboard had changed. But my grandmother wouldn’t allow even that. She had said fiercely: No, it’s the same signboard. I remember.

A few minutes later they turned into a narrow lane that was lined with shops on both sides. Now my grandmother didn’t know where to look, for suddenly the sights were falling into place like a stack of old photographs. She twisted and turned in her seat, pointing at everything: that’s where the boys used to play football, that’s where Shyam Lahiri used to live, that’s Rina’s house, I met her the other day in the park, that’s where Naresh-babu used to sit – behind the bars in that jewellery shop, sweeping up the gold dust with the hem of his dhoti …

The driver brought the car to a halt at the mouth of a narrow lane. Turning to Mayadebi, he pointed down the lane and said: That’s your house – that’s where Saifuddin has his workshop.

My grandmother, thrown into a sudden panic, began to protest. This couldn’t be it, she cried. It can’t be our lane, for where’s Kanababu’s sweet-shop? That shop over there is selling hammers and hardware: where’s the sweet-shop gone?

The driver rolled his hands sadly in the air and said: There’s no sweet-shop here; it’s all gone. Now there’s only this one.

Then, noticing a sudden movement, he flung his door open and darted off to chase away a boy who had tried to touch the star on the bonnet of the Mercedes. The boy melted back into a knot of young men and children who had gathered around the car. Eyeing them uneasily, the driver beckoned at the security guard and told him to watch the back of the car, while he watched the bonnet.

There! cried my grandmother, pointing down the lane. Look! Our house!

Its edges were blurred with moss, and banyan shoots were clinging to its crumbling silhouette, but the shape of the outline was exactly as she remembered it, large, welcoming and ungainly. My grandmother shut her eyes and would not move until Robi tugged at her hand and said: Let’s go and see it, come on.

But before they could go on, the driver came panting up to Mayadebi, whispered a few words to her, and ran back to the car. What did he say? Tridib asked her, but she was gazing at the house, smiling dreamily, and he had to ask her again before she answered: Oh, nothing – he wants us to come back quickly, in case there’s trouble.

They went into the lane with a crowd of curious children swarming after them. Most of them attached themselves to May. Robi could hear them whispering to each other about her, and one of them, a little girl, slipped her hand through hers.

They could see the house quite clearly now: wet saris fell from the terrace in wide gashes of colour, like spilt paint, and through the shutterless windows they could see soot-streaked walls, and the tops of mosquito-netted beds, and clothes hanging from nails. A small board hanging under one of the windows on the top floor said: Lutfullah Ismail, BA, MA (Patna), and offered his services for typing and shorthand.

Robi went on ahead, looked through the gateway and came running back. Motorcycles, he said in awe. Motorcycles everywhere.

It costs me no effort at all to imagine the look of amazed disbelief with which Mayadebi and my grandmother received this bit of news. They had known about the workshop, of course, but they hadn’t thought that it would be right there; not there, in that little stretch of garden where the two of them had so often sat wondering about the doings in their uncle’s upside-down house.

It can’t be true, said my grandmother. It must be a lie.

But then, at the gate, throwing up her arms to shield her eyes from a sunburst of blinding silver light, she saw that Robi had told her no more than the truth: the old portico had sprouted a tin shed that was shining in the blaze of a blowtorch as a man worked on a motorcycle mudguard. The patch of grass they had once called a garden was now pitted with pools of black oil and strewn with tyre-tubes and exhaust pipes.

It was all changed, but now my grandmother didn’t care any longer. It wasn’t the house she remembered, the house she had built for me in Calcutta, but it was near enough.

I can see her, wandering into that yard, heedless of the pools of grease and the discarded tyres, gazing up at the balconies with their spindly wrought-iron railings, tripping over a bent wheel as she looks for the lime trees her mother had once planted, knocking her knees against a set of twisted handlebars, until Saifuddin, the mechanic, leads her gently to a bench and persuades her to sit down. She looks at his grease-blackened face then, and wonders from which part of the house this new relative whose face she can’t remember has appeared. And Mayadebi, trying to rescue her from her bewilderment, explains softly that this is Saifuddin, the mechanic who is going to help them take their uncle back to India. My grandmother starts, because she has forgotten all about her uncle, but slowly, with an effort of that prodigious will of hers, she brings herself back to the present, reminds herself that she has a serious duty to perform, that she hasn’t come all this way merely to indulge her nostalgia – she hates nostalgia, my grandmother, she has spent years telling me that nostalgia is a weakness, a waste of time, that it is everyone’s duty to forget the past and look ahead and get on with building the future – so now, slowly, she reminds herself of the duty that has brought her here, her duty to take her uncle away from his past and thrust him into the future.