‘Life and times of a Rooftop’ by Dr. Ketaki Datta

Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

A three storied, old-fashioned building was ours in a snaky lane of North Calcutta. My father came along with his widowed mother to find refuge in this house, in a room on the roof. My granny, my uncle, father and their only sister started  living an identity-less, rootless life here in this serpentine lane in the northern nook of Calcutta—dazed, bewildered, woe-begone after a traumatic experience in the aftermath of the Partition of Bengal.

“See, don’t trample on the small cakes of pulses I have kept here to dry,” Granny used to shout cautioning her children who ran crazy along the roof, playing hopscotch. The pulse-cakes dried up, turned stony, yet Granny let them harden, more and more. Why? Perhaps it would make the curry tastier, which she planned to cook, the day after.

Days of sunshine, of scorching heat gave way to the pitter-patter of monsoon. Granny again gave the children a good dressing down, “No, you should not gambol in the rains, no, no way. Play later, I say.” Hurriedly she used to take away all the apparels from the clothesline at the slightest hint of a downpour.

As no one was there to earn for the family, my eldest uncle had to join the British Army to fight for them at Singapore. Each month his meagre salary would see them scraping through a hand-to-mouth existence. My father won a refugee stipend within a few months with his glorious result in the I.Sc. Examination though my younger uncle had to look forward to the money their dada sent through an army-man.

Setting at naught the dire straits, the children of the family went besides themselves in joy when the festive mood rocked one and all in the city. Come Durga puja, or Visvakarma puja or the lesser-observed Annapurna puja or the Ganesh Chaturthi, all four of them would roam hither and thither, hopping from one pandal to the other. Especially on the day of Visvakarma puja each year, father and younger uncle stayed high-strung all day, with their kites. None dared intercept their kites else his too would not be spared, the person knew. The roof bustled with flurry of activities all day long, while father took the spool in hand and uncle managed the kite that was driven up the sky for brave escapades.

A year passed by. Sped by another year.

Again on Visvakarma puja, Uncle was all thrilled to make the thread for the kite taut with glass and glue. My father dillydallied to fly the kite as examinations were drawing nearer and he had to study harder. In a huff, uncle shouldered all responsibilities alone, right from making the thread taut to flying the kite to planning strategies for combating unexpected attacks on the blue firmament. Uncle was not feeling well, his head was reeling as he had not taken his breakfast and kept working hard, all day long.

A fatal afternoon it was. Granny came twice or thrice to call him to have his lunch but all her calls fell on deaf ears. In a frenzied mood, while he was pacing backward to give a pull to the thread to ward off an attack on his kite, Uncle slipped through a jutting edge and kept falling down. He screamed in fear and Raju uncle of another family, who was staying in ground-floor of the house alarmed all but he had been caught midway, which caused the ankle of his left leg to be badly fractured. He was saved, but his right leg got such a terrible wringing that it lost its strength and since then all his life, uncle took a crutch to support his steps.

Granny could not finance the treatment further and he went into frequent bouts of depression to which he succumbed one afternoon, a year after. He lay down facing the wall that afternoon, his body was weak owing to his deliberate starvation. His heart stopped functioning, quite stealthily. When it was discovered, Granny rent the still air with her shrill cry. My eldest uncle had returned from war by then, my father had completed his I.Sc Examination with a first division and took admission in Calcutta Medical College and enrolled in the MBBS course. Again, refugee stipend was the only support he could fall back on.

However, they moved houses before a year rolled on. Father missed the rooftop, Granny was not happy with the ground-floor accommodation that they had shifted to. Father sometimes paid a visit to the house with the sprawling roof, behind all eyes, and felt sad. Days went on, memories faded out, demands of reality jumped up to fill all void.

The roof now belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Ganguly, who came to stay in the attic, after severing their ties with the joint family, of which they were an inextricable part. Mr. Ganguly was a utensil-seller by profession. He owned a shop at Hatibagan Market. Mrs. Ganguly kept toiling on her sewing machine to help her husband eke out a moderate income to support their mentally-disabled daughter, Sushama.In her grandfather’s house, Sushama had no dearth of aunts to look after her and brothers and sisters to play with. Here, on the contrary, she was all alone to talk to the rag-doll and cook for her doll-family and attend a school, where many girls like her were taught the basics of education. She learnt to read A,B,C with much effort but memory failed to retain all the twenty-six alphabets in serial order. While asked, she used to answer—A, C, D, B, G, E, F, L, Z , so on. The words never got arranged in her brain. They chose irregular sockets for themselves in her memory and Sushama blabbed out, accordingly. Father never rebuked her, Mom was so affectionate that she never asked her how she fared in school.

Lately, Sushama had fallen in love with the long stretch of the blue sky that stood over her head. She loved the changing colours of the sky, from the morning to the afternoon to the evening. Even, the night-sky held her captivated. She loved to count all the stars above her head while Mom kept sewing clothes, perching on her machine. She, however, asked her to keep indoors after sundown.

Each day filled her with wonder to see a star that never changed its place and stayed fixed. Each day, she could hear mother and father sighing, talking about her future. She lay on her back or turned aside to feign asleep. But, she could not get a few words like ‘physically unfit’, ‘no match for her’, ‘what next’, till she lost herself in slumber. From slumber to deep sleep. Next morning, when she woke up, the first thing she did was to run to the roof to hear a few birds chirping on the treetop opposite to their house. She sat on the chair laid for her till the sun appeared harsh to her eyes. She came into the room and mother gave her to eat and she slept off. Mother came in the late afternoon to join her on bed, to steal a nap. Sushama’s days and nights passed by quietly till a man started frequenting their room.

The man used to look at her at askance. His gaze stuck her with unease and she never liked the man. The man, she gathered from her Mom, worked with her father in the same premises of the shopping complex. He too had a shop there. As a girl of eleven, she had her senses, mature. She never liked the man, though he tried to sidle closer. She avoided him and he looked for pretexts for being alone with her. They had only one living room, which was a multi-purpose one. Naturally, she sat glued to the bed as long as the man stayed there sitting on the chair.

One day, father and mother decided to go to Dakshineswar temple and she knew she would also accompany them. But, she was not taken as it would tell on her health if she had to go out, at such early hours. That man stayed back with her instead, at her father’s insistence. She wished to stop him but it was toolate by then. She did not know that father had asked him to stay for that morning, with her. He readily agreed and father was duly assured. But, in the morning when Sushama came to know of their final decision she felt insecure.

However, that man came and asked her to come out to the roof and talk to him. But she did not feel like responding to his request. Again, she could not stand on the sun-baked roof for long. Hence, she had to come back to the room, willy-nilly. And, she could not believe her ears when the man went pestering her to sit on his lap and watch the street from the window. She declined his request. A little later, he made her sit on his lap and kept pushing her arse hard with his cock. Before she could understand anything, she was forced to lie on the bed and when father and Maa returned they found her in a pool of blood and as she was taken to the hospital nearby, she was declared dead as a possum.

Mr. Ganguly sold his shop and left the locality with his wife to settle elsewhere. Sushama was seen by some to saunter round on the roof at either early dawn or at the advent of dusk, for some days. No tenant came for quite a few months but few years later,  an artist rented the place to stay there all alone with an easel, a colour set, painting items, papers, art-books and a pair of dreamy eyes.

“I want a picture of Monalisa from a different angle”, ordered an art-dealer. And, Surya, a village-bred youth who lost everything for the sake of his blind love for art and painting, kept wielding his paintbrush for hours together to give shape to his imagination, staying tucked at a corner of this room, putting his easel straight, facing the southward window. Instead of etching the curious look on Monalisa’s face, he kept bringing the sky that stretched over the roof, to life. He loved to look at the flock of the birds that flew over the roof at sundown and the changing colours of the sky at the crack of dawn.

One evening, his cousin Sneha dropped by. She cast a curious look at Surya, the artist, and chipped in, “How can you lock yourself in this 10ft.x10ft room and concentrate on your painting?” Surya kept quiet for a while and then rejoined, “Painting is my passion. It hardly matters whether my room is big or small. This corner is cosy as well as well-lighted. That’s what concerns me.”

“ OhLord! Suri, these days you’re quite good at picking up quarrels, I see.”

“ No, I am not into bickering. I love to paint and stack my boards in a pile. For that this room has enough space, I believe. Anything else?”

“No. If you are so miffed at my suggestion, I prefer to reserve that.Okay fine, carry on, my brother.”

Surya brewed coffee for her, asked her to sit and watched him bring a canvas to life. The two faces that sought warmth in each otherwere being brought to life on the easel and Sneha was really late for going back home. However, Surya helped her get into a cab. But the rest brought shame on Surya. Next morning, he came to know that his sister had been raped while she was moving in a taxi. She had been taken to a nursing home. But, which nursing home, where-all drew blank before him.Surya called his uncle and heard that uncle also had no idea, and, they were running pen and corner of the city inquiring after their daughter’s whereabouts. Surya informed that Sneha had come to see him in the evening and uncle complained- she used go out on her own, all alone, to friends’ houses in the evening and stayed back till late hours. She had taken to boozing too. Surya joined his uncle in his search, and, lastly the city cops helped them to locate Sneha, lying in a bed in a dingy private nursing home. Her condition was critical. Uncle lost his cool but Surya pacified him. By the evening, Sneha had breathed her last. Surya was so shocked that he could not paint for a month, following the tragic incident.

After a few days, Surya felt down and out and left for Paris with a full scholarship for a year, meant for young painters. Before leaving, he handed the keys of his room to the landlord and vacated the room by the evening before he took off. Surya was heard not to return from Paris again. Though he started off with a year-long scholarship, he managed to shift from Paris to the U.S., began working for a magazine as an Art Editor and the rest is not known. It is not known whether he came back or settled there for good.

After this, a family  rented the place. The girl, a nubile damsel, used to croon catchy tunes each evening while she came to the roof to collect the sun-dried clothes. One day, her eyes fell on a fashionable youth who looked at her, agape, with unblinking eyes. She readily fell in love with the man. Love at first sight it was! Each evening Unman kept waiting for Srijaya, and kept fidgeting, if she got late by ten minutes, somehow! Letters began to be exchanged on the edge of the roof. From silent gaze to voluble exchange of views, meeting on the roof each evening matured on to frequent meetings at Victoria Memorial arbour. But, as Srijaya demanded a logical, plausible shape to the affair, matters grew worse. In the early eighties in Calcutta, caste distinctions still played vital role in marriage!

On the rooftop, the following day, with much grief in his heart, Unman informed Srijaya, “Sorry, my mother says, she would have to put an end to her life, if you step into our house as her daughter-in-law. In any case, I am not being allowed to marry a girl of the Mandals, being an heir to Ramkanta Chatterjee!” His eyes grew moist. Srijaya lowered her head in abhorrence. And then protested,“Then why did you say that you love me?”

“I love you still, but, I can’t marry you,” pat came his reply.

Sky came crashing on her head. Srijaya ran to the room to hide the tears that welled up in her eyes. Unman cast his gaze at the evening star, waited for Srijaya for some time and heaving a sigh, went downstairs.

Srijaya thought of putting an end to her life out of sheer frustration.

But, at last, she decided to join her uncle’s friend at Singapore, who promised to give her a better life. Whether she got a better life, or she still pined for Unman’s love is unknown to us. But, Unman married a girl of his mother’s choice who won him a fantabulous fortune through the dowry.

A few years sped by in the meanwhile.

Nuclear families came to replace joint families.

Old ways proved obsolete, youths had a novel way of expressing love. Digital Love with everything digital, became the watchword of the times.

Rooftops become less frequented by the lovers of these times, they love to stay locked in each other’s arms instead, in the shady arbour of Rabindra Sarobaror Victoria Memorial

Apartment complexes raise their heads with rooftops for water-tanks and modern techniques of water-supply from there.

A complex of newly-built apartments raises its head in lieu of the ramshackle building that stood for years together, bearing the smutty smell of bygone era on its exterior. But, the roof, the same roof is still there. Now kites are no longer flown from this high roof but wind blows and whistles and those who come to the rooftop to have a look at the water-tank either for cleaning it or making it spruce have no time to stand and listen to the whisper of sundry histories that lies in its bosom. Gone are those days, gone are those good old times along with miserable experiences, huh!

 

About the Author:

Dr. Ketaki Datta is an Associate Professor of English, Bidhannagar College, Kolkata. She is a novelist,short story writer, critic and a translator. Her debut novel “A Bird Alone” has won rave reviews in India and abroad. Her poems have been published in anthologies published by Brian Wrixon, Canada. She has been to Lisbon on an invitation from IFTR [Ireland chapter] to read out a paper titled “Human Values and Modern Bengali Drama”, which got published in the Festival Issue of The Statesman in India. “Indo-Anglian Literature: Past to Present” [Booksway, 2008], “New Literatures in English: Fresh Perspectives”[Book World, 2011],  “Selected Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore in Translation”[Avenel, 2013], “ The Black and Nonblack Shades of Tennessee Williams”[ Book World, 2012] , “The Last Salute” [Sahitya Akademi, 2013] are a few of her notable publications.

Glossary:

Annapurna puja: Worship of Lord Annapurna, the Goddess of Harvest.

Chatterjee: A Bengali surname, denoting the higher caste of the person[i.e.,a Brahmin].

Dada: elder brother.

Dakshineswar Temple: The temple situated on the bank of the river Ganges, in which Goddess Kali is worshipped. Sri Ramakrishna worshipped Goddess Kali here, in this temple.

Durga puja: The worship of Goddess Durga. Usually in Bengal, this festival is observed with much pomp and grandeur in early Autumn.

Ganesh Chaturthi: An auspicious day to worship Lord Ganesha, the deity of prosperity, across the nation.

Hatibagan Market: A famous market-complex in North Kolkata, India.

Mandal: A Hindu surname, denoting the lower caste of the person.

Pandal: An improvised, temporary structure erected for worshipping the Goddess

Rabindra Sarobar: A Lake, situated in Southern Kolkata, named after Rabindranath Tagore.

Victoria Memorial: A chateau, surrounded by beautiful gardens and arbours, in the central Kolkata, named after Queen Victoria. It has attained a ‘heritage site’ status lately.

Visvakarma puja: Worship of Lord Visvakarma, a Hindu God of art and architecture.

 

Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)

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3 comments for “‘Life and times of a Rooftop’ by Dr. Ketaki Datta

  1. 27/06/2013 at 11:23 pm

    A good story. The language is vibrant and makes the story so attractive to read it all at once. I like her stylish writing.

  2. samuel dani
    25/08/2013 at 8:14 pm

    I enjoyed reading the story in a go . very crispy language . well, felt i lived through the story

  3. Ketaki Datta
    15/05/2015 at 12:55 pm

    I thank Samuel Dani and Asim Kumar Paul for their kind comments. I feel humbled rather.

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