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Authors: Neel Mukherjee

A Life Apart

A Life Apart
A Life Apart
Neele Mukherjee

Constable • London


Constable & Robinson Ltd
3 The Lanchesters
162 Fulham Palace Road
LondonW6 9ER

First published in India as
Past Continuous
by Picador India, 2008

First UK edition published by Constable,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2010

Copyright © Neel Mukherjee, 2008, 2010

The right of Neel Mukherjee to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any
form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-1-84901-101-3

Printed and bound in the EU

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History isn’t only what we inherit, safe and sound and after the fact; it is also what we are ourselves obliged to endure.

‘Public Intellectuals’, Cynthia Ozick,
Quarrel & Quandary

And now the sun had stretched out all the hills,

And now was dropped into the western bay;

At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:

Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

‘Lycidas’, John Milton.

And then another problem reared its head. When Miss Gilby had first entered the inner courtyard there had been a great deal of trouble that had lasted
quite some time. Eventually, the whole thing had got buried under the routine and rhythms of quotidian life. But soon everything was raked up again; I hadn’t given much thought to Miss
Gilby’s nationality for a long time but now I began to do so. I said to my husband, ‘I think you should ask her to leave.’ He kept quiet. I said a lot of unpleasant things to him.
He heard me out, silent and sad, and then left the room. I sulked and cried for a while. That night, he said to me, ‘Bimala, I cannot see Miss Gilby as
an English woman and
nothing more. Does the fact that you’ve known her for so long count as nothing? Is her Englishness everything? Don’t you understand how fond she is of you?’

I felt ashamed but couldn’t swallow my pride entirely and agree that he was right. So I said, somewhat petulantly, ‘All right, then, let her stay. Who’s asked her to

from ‘Bimala’s autobiography’, Rabindranath Tagore,
The Home and the World


here was a queue for electric furnaces at Kalighat crematorium on the eleventh of October. Ritwik did not know how long he had to wait before one
became available.

‘You have to wait, like everyone else. No corpse is privileged over the other. You can’t hurry death, do you understand?’ he was told by one of the furnace attendants, as if he
had asked to jump the queue when all he had wanted to know was how long it would take. He reasoned he would much rather a longer wait for he did not want to go through that bristling panoply of
rituals before the sliding rails carried his mother’s body into the heart of fire, in full, cleansing view of everyone. When the moment arrived, he knew he had been dreading it with a cold,
randomly clutching-and-unclutching grip in his bowels. His mother’s body had been laid out on a criss-cross frame of cheap wood that formed a ramshackle stretcher, secured to it with rough
coir ropes and covered with a white, coarse sheet; her head had been left exposed. It nodded and lolled like a floppy doll’s as the stretcher was placed in front of one of the three furnaces
that would ultimately devour her.

The Brahmin priest was already there, more a harried figure doing brisk business than a sombre religious person. A distracted, infinitely bored look had seeped its way into his stubbly face
through years of practice in the death trade: it was an irremovable mask now, his only skin. His eyes were the yellow of mangled fried eggs and he had foul breath.

‘Are you wearing any animal products? You’ll have to remove them,’ he said to Ritwik.

‘What animal products? Leather?’ Ritwik wasn’t sure what he had to remove.

‘Yes, leather, wool, anything made with horn. You will have to take off your shirt as well.’ From the complete absence of tone, he might as well have been reading out a lesson he had
taught every day for decades to a bunch of vapid children.

Ritwik undid his borrowed watch – the strap was made of leather – and handed it to his brother, Aritra. He then took off his shirt and stood there, naked to the waist.

‘What about the belt? Is that made of leather?’ the priest asked. Those sick yellow eyes didn’t miss a thing.

‘Yes, I think it is,’ Ritwik said, ‘but I can’t take it off. My jeans are three sizes too big for me; if I remove it, they’ll just slip off.’

There was the noise, no, not even noise, but the atmospheric charge, of a dutifully suppressed titter of shock around him. As the priest grudgingly assented or ignored, he could not figure out
which, he was handed a bundle of burning faggots and asked to circle his mother seven times and touch the barely burning straw-and-twigs to her grey face every time he reached her head during the
circling. This then was
, the fire-to-the-face ritual that initiated the funeral process and without which it was unsanctioned and incomplete, this the very act that had made him shy
away from all the ceremonies which were the first-born son’s duty at his father’s cremation eleven days ago. But now he did not have the heart, or the steeliness of will, to send along
his mother without the reckoning, with all the imperfections on her head.

Ritwik suddenly had a suspicion of a supremely ironic design of Things, with a malignant sense of humour, which had brought him to perform what he had so wilfully avoided a few days ago. Someone
was laughing somewhere, he thought, as he turned his head away every time he branded his mother’s dead face: it left a black, ashy singe wherever it touched. His stomach heaved, letting him
know that it had been empty for a very long time, and a malicious spurt of acid moved up swiftly behind his chest bone, his throat, impatient to enter his mouth, but he swallowed the sour fire.

The wooden stretcher with his mother on it was positioned on the rails; it slid shudderingly along them towards the door of the furnace with insides of consuming fire. The body entered it, the
door shut all from fire to fire, while he stood outside in his intolerable shirt of flame and a wail went up from a clot of numbed people in front of another furnace, the sound like a refraction in
a distorting mirror. This then was the atomised end, the final breakdown into the fundamental particles.
It will take an hour and a half for it to be over, come away now, come
. Ninety
minutes was too too long for a human body, wasn’t it? Did it burn like paper to an infinitely curling hyaline thinness, his mother escaping out of a flue somewhere upwards and ascending still
. . .

Two days after they took her to the hospital, Ritwik’s mother died. The whisper everywhere was that his father had taken his mother away. ‘Pulled her away to
him,’ everyone said. Otherwise, how could one explain the abnormally small gap of eleven days,
eleven days
, between the two deaths? To Ritwik, everyone seemed scared at this sign of
the workings of a world beyond the here and now, as if their lives had been momentarily lit by a cruel, grand flash of the great unknown, a reminder of something ineffable, then plunged back into
their dim, quotidian greyness again. He detected a faint whiff of an ‘I told you so’ attitude in his uncles, his aunts, the neighbours, or was that just imagined? But there was no
mistaking the holy dread at what was being discussed as the bond that worked beyond human life.

On the day it happened – grey, close, the no-time between afternoon and dusk – Ritwik was sitting on the floor of his uncle Pradip’s room, indifferently pushing around the cold
rice and dal and vegetables on the stainless steel plate in front of him, with relatives and neighbours sitting around, waiting and watching for signs of grief at his father’s death nine days
ago. This parliament of vultures had been gathering for the last week to circle around that one death when it looked as if it could suddenly, thrillingly, jump up to two. Their piously suppressed
excitement provided a tight murmur in the background, like the muffled buzzing of bees: grief offered such a delicious peek into the minutiae of other people’s lives.

His mother was in her room, in the customary mourning garb, coarse handspun white cotton sari, being watched by another set of people, waiting, watching, and commiserating. It was then that
Mejo-mashi, one of his aunts, ran into Pradip-mama’s room and wailed, ‘Something’s happened to Didi, come quickly, she’s slurring her speech and rolling her eyes!’

In one swift swarm they reached his mother’s room. Ritwik saw her, awkwardly reclined on the floor, trying to stretch out beside the low bed but failing, her jaw a fluid, mobile line
involved in the painful formation of words which kept slipping away from the solid, sharp edges they unthinkingly assumed in healthy people. Her eyes were trying both to shut and to keep open at
the same time, as if seeking a fugitive point of focus that kept eluding her. The elastic slippages of the words managed somehow to convey ‘pain’ and ‘head’. Ritwik barked
out to nobody in particular, ‘Why are you shouting? Why are you all crowding around her? Move away, give her some air!’

It did not take long for the neighbourhood doctor, who had come quickly, to conduct a few basic tests – scratching a key on the soles of her feet, asking her, a bit too loudly and slowly,
as if speaking to a retarded child, to focus on the tip of a pen which he held in his fingers and moved from one point to another in a straight horizontal line – and confirm what was already
nudging darkly at the back of Ritwik’s mind: she had had a massive cerebral stroke (‘hemiplegia’ was the word the doctor used) and was to be rushed to the intensive care unit of a

There were no ambulances in Calcutta. Assuming you had a telephone in the first place, there were no emergency numbers to dial either. Although Ritwik’s childhood had been dotted here and
there with the excitement of seeing fire engines rush past, a standing fireman in an overlarge helmet clanging a loud bell with a stick or pulling the string attached to it, he had no idea how it
had been summoned. A phone call or someone running to fetch it? In any case, they did not have a telephone and it would have meant going upstairs to Tabbu’s flat to use their phone, so
someone had to go to the bus stop, a ten-minute walk away, and fetch a taxi from the rank there.

His mother had meanwhile thrown up the chyme of boiled rice, boiled potatoes, boiled green bananas – a sure sign, the doctor had said, of cerebral haemorrhage. In popular belief it was a
‘medical’ indication that things were very serious indeed. There was a short, tense debate between Ritwik and his uncles whether carrying her horizontally to the taxi parked outside
would exacerbate her condition or whether supporting her two arms around the necks of two strong men and walking her to the taxi would be more damaging. In the end, it was decided she would be
walked out, supported by Pradip-mama on one side and Pratik-mama on the other, with Ritwik following closely to offer additional help should it be needed.

There was a crowd now: neighbours congregating in the balconies of nearby houses, trying, and failing, to be discreet as they looked on; the throng surrounding the passage of his mother from the
house to the taxi outside (they had to shout ‘Make way, make way’ several times to ease the obstruction); and the assortment of relatives. There was Ria-mami, married to his oldest
uncle, Pradip-mama; their daughter, the three-year old Munu, whimpering, not quite sure of what had happened but, with a child’s unerring nose, had somehow sniffed out that her favourite
person in the household was going away, perhaps with no hope of return; Nisha, the maidservant; his mother’s sister, Mejo, who looked retreating and forlorn, whether from what had happened to
her sister or from Ritwik’s sharp words a few minutes ago, he could not tell; Tabbu’s mother; half a dozen neighbours.

The taxi was one of those not unusual Calcutta ones which had two drivers sharing the business of driving in shifts. There was trouble fitting everyone in: Tabbu sat in front, squeezed between
the two drivers, Pradip-mama, Ritwik, and Aritra in the back, with their mother half-carried, half-slumping. Ritwik’s three other uncles gathered around, wanting to clamber in, in a display
of hectic participation. He came close to pointing out that the taxi couldn’t fit any more; besides, there were quite enough people to take care of things, but he held his tongue: it gave
them something to do, a kind of focus to an otherwise unvaried stretch of the same day, day after day.

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