Cockroach

By RAJOSIK MITRA

 

I

It is 3:46 A.M. July, 2019. This cockroach is a creature of habit, something that crawls out from the cracks right after the lights are out. Nobody sees it till it is right there, suddenly there, on that exact same spot every night. It has a look on it that tells you it is old, that it’s been waiting there for ages, waiting for something inevitable that never comes, always deferred. Its antennae, moving in a slow rhythm, sweep the air above its head.

________

It must be 5:00 P.M. August, 2003. Some mellow, yellow rays of the sun fall at an angle on the pavement. The air smells of wet grass, earth, and rain that has recently died. I am probably coming back from somewhere. My father is holding my hand, he says, “Look at that Neel, look at that gold-mottled footpath.” I look at it. I have never thought much about anything before. “When I was a little boy, your grandma would say she never wants to die; this world is so beautiful, it must be painful to leave it behind.” By 5:06 P.M. I can’t stop thinking about death; it is the first time I think of it.

________

A few months later my nanny sat in the corner of our living room and quietly cried. Her brother had just died, leaving her the only person on this planet who had seen their mother, heard her. Their mother had asked nan to take good care of him. The living room never had much light coming in and it was damp, light-switches all off. Nan cried. I took my textbook with me, I knew she couldn’t read, so I read it to her, “Everything that is born, must grow old and die.” My mother called me away, but nan didn’t stop crying. That evening nan took me to the park. On the way, she told me her daughter was poor; I asked her “Meena pishi[1]  is poor?” “Yes, of course. Why do you think her mother is working another household dearie?” We passed the police station. “She is going to buy a bus one day. Put it out for hire. If everything goes well, they’ll call me back, not let me work,” she giggled. “Oh, they’ll not let me move one finger.” We passed shapely clay statuettes, someone coughed from behind them. “It’s a shame about Kalipada,” nan continued, “my mother told me, ‘Khuki[2], when I’m not here, take good care of him.’ If only Meena’s marriage had worked.” There were puddles on the road and I asked her if I could go splashing. “Just a little bit? Please?” “Oh it’s alright Neel, it’s only rainwater. Rainwater is clean, it comes from the sky, I’ll tell your mother if she tries to scold you.”

In the following year, the monsoon came heavier than usual. Everybody said it was like 1978 all over again as the city sank up to its waist. I woke up one morning in July to the sound of two people bickering in the other room, the rain pouring like radio static outside the window. Under the bed I could hear strange murmurs from the ripple of sewage water slowly pushing against the wall, rising by the minute. My parents were fighting again; they were loud. I sat at the window in the afternoon; the rain had ceased for a while and the water was still. A patch of sunlight from somewhere lost its way and fell still on the yellow water, waiting to be called back into the sky-big trunk of nightfall. It projected a vibrating reflection, a sudden patch of stark white in the black, cavernous ceiling above me. My father liked to talk proudly of how tall the ceilings in this apartment were. As a kid, I agreed, this ceiling above me went on, up into outer space. And this patch of white, vibrating as if a million souls were trapped inside of it, appeared within that darkness above me, like a rip in our dimensions, a tear in the dark fabric of spacetime. I stared and wondered if there was a world inside of it; life inside of it. I felt a deep mystery emanating from its vibrations. With a mild crackle, the radio played my sister’s favorite song. She was singing along as she copied some lesser known details about the illustrious captain of the national cricket team into a fat diary from a magazine she’d borrowed from a friend at school when we heard the electricity would be out till the waterlogging cleared; it was an underground fault. Many years later, the two of us would sit together with a seemingly unceasing rain outside the window again, and she would be staring at the same, never-ending diary. In it would be conversations that she’s had with the twins that are yet to be born–one of them has lost its heartbeat. My brother-in-law would be pacing up and down in the gray light of the corridor.

_______

For two days, the water didn’t go anywhere, then it started to stink. I waded through it with a cane whenever my parents were not looking. The rain had to be stopped. I would have to fight the clouds, as the gods and their avatars had failed to win, resorting to connivance in the end, and shamelessly cutting deals with the rain. I forged my cloud-killer from a bent, sturdy plastic pipe and a string of some sort, and filled its quiver with the countless jute sticks that nan stored. The bow itself was crafted by her, blessed by her. I took it to the window, and while chanting something that I myself had made up, fired many arrows to the wind. None of them reached the clouds, but the rain stopped. I believed I was blessed, a second or a third coming, but now it seems so silly.

 

II

It is an early October morning, 2006. The festive vacations have just started. I wake up late and confused. My mother assures me it is the holidays. That morning at about 6:00 A.M. a big deluxe bus stopped in front of our house. I imagine it to be as big as the house when I later hear about it, when I hear that Meena pishi’s bus stopped by to pick up nan for her granddaughter’s wedding.

_____

She’d wished for us to go. My mother said pensively while cooking, “She would’ve been so happy if at least you kids could go, she kept asking even as she was putting on her slippers to leave this morning.” “Why didn’t we go then?!” I asked. My mother poured some water into the pan and replied, “It wouldn’t look good. Besides, don’t you have holiday homework? Run along now, go finish.” When nan came back, I showed her pictures from my new encyclopedia: the surface of Mars, the craters of the moon–none of which she believed to be real. Mars is a god, the moon is, well, just the moon, why should it have a surface? I felt helpless as she shrugged every picture off. “Tut! Tut! Don’t you go jesting with me while I’m working, Neel!” she said, giggling to herself.

That night before going to sleep I asked my mother, almost absentmindedly, how nan’s brother died. He caught a lung disease from breaking wheat husk all day at the machine, she said. He would often come looking for his elder sister at our place, and she would give him some lunch, sometimes a little money. He never married and didn’t have any friends, breaking husk from dawn to dusk. I quickly forgot about him.

Three years later, my own sister was getting married. Our small apartment filled up with guests. A happy crowd. Our neighbors had let their rooms as well for the guests, and the whole house was buzzing with celebration. Meena pishi and her daughter kept circulating snacks, refreshments, and took requests for tea, omelets. They went around the house tirelessly. I wondered briefly how the daughter’s wedding had gone.

Nan worked many other households but stayed the night in our home, slept in the kitchen, for we had little space. She would get groceries for Varun Laha, do the dishes for Bala Saha, and get medicines for Amalendu Mitra, who now lives alone and only rarely is visited by his son. Nan would also sell the kerosene that was allotted to our ration cards; it was a measly sum, but at least it was some money. She didn’t have a ration card of her own, or a voter card, or any other document that proved the government knew of her. When the Aadhaar[3] move was sanctioned, we couldn’t get her a card; the authorities asked her for some form of identification, but she couldn’t produce any. I could tell she was sad, if only a little. I wish I could have consoled her then, it’s a fuck up by the government, maashi[4], you were always here, you were here before the government.

What she had was a hospital card, a free healthcare ticket. She would talk at length about the doctors at the hospital–kind, funny, young gentlemen who prescribed medicines, took her vitals. She would walk across the bridge under the noon sun to the hospital and walk all the way back. My mother had recently started complaining about nan’s habit of taking up work in other households; Mum kept telling her she wasn’t the same age as when she took up this work, besides it left little time and energy for the work at our place. It was true, some time had passed. My mother had been pregnant with my sister when nan was first given her duties. My mother had suggested retirement a few times; Meena’s business was doing well, we heard. She supposedly had many more buses the size of houses then. She still came by sometimes, to take the money that her mother earned from selling kerosene plus some biscuits and some more money for Ravi’s wedding. Ravi was nan’s grandson. She was proud of him, as he was a good lad who knew computers. He later took up work as an assistant to a hardware assembler. “When Ravi brings a wife, they won’t let me work, oh, they won’t let me lift a finger,” Nan would say and giggle.

 

III

It is 7 A.M. August 2012. It’s raining. My friends know a spot beside the fish-lake on the waterfront. A lot of fish float up dead near the edge of the water. Their eyes are large ‘X’s. The lake smells rotten, fish-rotten. But we can’t smell it after we’ve settled in. It doesn’t come through the polythene cooking an invisible vapor of Dendrite around your nose, your mouth and your brain. In a while the polythene bag will start mimicking the rhythm of my lungs killing my neurons, ten-thousand of them per breath, that’s what they say anyway.

_______

Dendrite is the part of a neuron that receives chemical impulses. It is also the commercial name for an adhesive. After the higher secondary started, I made new friends, regularly skipped school, and took a special form of liking to this adhesive. I was religiously failing my classes and sniffing glue. My brother-in-law stopped talking to me. My mother and sister cried on my eighteenth birthday. I was chasing visions, illusions, and nightmares made legend by the inanity of the moshpit crowds, the petty insanity of black-clad, Floyd-speaking, metal-cocked masses and the vomit dreams of opium. My new friends put everything in perspective, put everyone in their place. They’d judge you for being a pauper, they’d judge you for your name.

One April morning, my father discovered polythene packets strewn around my room, my bed stained by my own vomit, and me sleeping peacefully in the midst of it. I sat on my bed in the afternoon. Nanny was just finishing up the cleaning; it was a mess, and the stink just wouldn’t leave. My father had refused to come into the room until then, when he came in now he turned the light on. He could not see well in those days, as surgery was the only way to make things a little brighter, but that money had been put away for my college. Two years later, I failed the entrances but the money still stayed in the bank. That money in the bank was like a turtle that carried us around on its back; if it moved or went away, we would slip into the ocean and drown. My father quietly stood at the door. “How are you feeling? Neel?” There was something in him that showed he was defeated in a battle he’d prepared his whole life for. I did not answer. “Answer him, Neel, he’s asking something. You should answer when your parents are talking to you,” nan said as she wiped the floor with phenyl. My teeth clenched, I barked, “Why don’t you shut up! You’re just the housemaid, just a servant! This is between me and my father!” “Apologize!” my father rumbled like low thunder, and I left the room. As I left, I could hear her say, “Yes, that is true. I am just the maid-servant, Neel…”

Things did not change much until one sudden night in July when the wind picked up the scent of geosmin. As I walked back home, perfectly sober, petrichor flooded my synapses, crowded on my dendrites. I felt an irrepressible elation as I stepped into a puddle, the rain now pouring, the noise of the static increasing. There was mud in my sandaks, and I proceeded to wash it in the next puddle. “That’s alright, it’s only rain, rainwater is clean,” I thought to myself. As I walked past the TV-shop, the large flat screens lit up the skyfall: newscasters smiled at me and rickshaws sped by galloping like chariots of old. When I came back the house was quiet. I called for my nan to serve me dinner as I took my towel to dry up and change. My mother had been quietly sitting and now came up to me. She took me by my arm and breaking into tears said that nan wouldn’t be serving us dinner anymore. She had a cardiac arrest at Meena’s place that very afternoon. Meena had called to let us know.

It was all so sudden: the kitchen was renovated, the flooring lifted, the walls repainted. You wouldn’t recognize the apartment now. During the monsoon, my parents are not filled with dread at the thought of wading through sewage just to get to the other room. They now enjoy a warm meal and the chatter of the TV with the static of the rain in the background. I haven’t slept properly for many nights, still can’t find a job, nobody will hire me. At night, I browse the internet for mysteries and read about the Anunnaki, the impending apocalypse, rebirth, and ask strangers about the end of Kaliyuga, when does it end? In my darkened curtained room, LEDs keep time with my friend who records his sessions here. A beam of white light freezes, split by a prism on his T-shirt as he shreds on the 10s and prepares for the launch of his next EP; he’s got eleven likes on his last one.

 

IV

It is 5:00 P.M. August, 2016. I am sitting at my old bedroom window, the far room that my father now sleeps in. An old friend has come over. My childhood sweetheart. We sit watching the palm trees rustling in the wind. One or two stars appear, and we are dipped in a dark shade of azure under the somber evening sky as we ask each other uncomfortable questions. I try to remember a poem I wrote about never falling in love. An elephant had escaped from the circus and ran wild in our neighborhood on the day we first kissed. They tranquilized him and put him back in shackles and I don’t remember seeing him do his tricks again. I still dream of the smell of hay in water and endless, wise elephant skin. Often as a child, I would go watch the animals in their cages at the nearby circus grounds early in the morning. Smog lay heavy on the streets. I stood trembling in front of the tiger’s cage as it prowled back and forth, eyes fixed on me. I held nan’s hand and pleaded with her, “Don’t go any closer nan.” Oh god, nan. What did you ever get in life? Is death different?     

The orange flame from a matchstick has doused the deep blue skies, lit up a cigarette between the lips of a girl I once loved, and then extinguished. My one-time lover then proceeds to ask me where nan is. Did I say all that out loud? I tell her… I tell her I don’t know. She’s gone somewhere maybe. Maybe Meena’s place. I don’t know. We sit in silence and forget to turn on the lights.

_______

It is probably that night or a few nights later that I have a dream. Nan is serving dinner to cockroaches; the cockroaches are like her children. She feeds them, watches over them. She has taught them everything they know. One of the cockroaches, she tells me, was named Neel. She named him after me. Neel died when he wanted to go learn swimming with his friends at the lake. She’s taught the others mathematics, grammar, and science. Here, she can read and write–she’s even taught music to one of them. I ask her if she died and she shrugs it off, “Tut! Tut!” I nod, and inside the dream I reason with myself that it is true, she is not dead. Did she exist? No, of course she did, she just didn’t die. She’s been here since she left us. She asks me if I’ll have some dinner as she tells a little cockroach the story of how she and her brother would steal fruits from the zamindar’s orchard as kids, and how they escaped once they were caught by the pikemen. It’s a story I know too well; she’s told me a hundred times.

V

3:46 A.M. 13th of July, 2019. This cockroach silently stares at me. I stare back at it. Every night. It comes out after we switch off the lights and it sits on the microwave. Just sits there. Waiting for something inevitable. Death perhaps, and death comes, takes it. The spot is empty for a week. Then someone takes it up again. The same spot, for a quarter of a year. I have begun to think it’s the same cockroach: being born it wants to die and so sits still till death on that one spot, cursed again to the same body. In some other life it had been me. It could be me right now. Standing here, I see its countless deaths, in dreams, in life. A city flooded at midnight with cockroaches all crawling out from the darkness of those crevices: crossing borders, sitting on microwaves; they’re all born from the ootheca in human lives, the shadows of human dreams, the black glare of failures big and small; all they do is survive, sit in the darkness pondering past lives. I feel myself shrinking. I see a snakebitten body floating on a lifeless raft on the waters of Kopotakkho. I see my father cross the border in granny’s arms–he is tiny and asleep. My mother, I see her in the ancient lava-earth gondwana town of poet Kalidas, with a fistful of peat coal. Her father played football with the Colonists and retired with injury. Many years later my sister is born. My nan is submitting her appointment letter to my father, written in perfect English; I wonder who wrote it. Rain comes; water fills the street, the alley, and dips the houses in mud. Cockroaches swim in it. My nan picks them up by their antennae and puts them on dry land. I stare trying to understand. A thought once came to me and turned into a fever which hasn’t left me since. We are on dry land, nan. But what of you? The shape of everybody at the five-point crossing, it looks like a can of worms. The light in the passageway comes on, it must be dawn, and the cockroach and I crawl back to our own personal darknesses.

________ 

 

Rajosik Mitra was born, raised and educated in Kolkata, India. His works include poems and short fiction. His poems have been published in Indian Literature, one of the leading literary institutions of India.


Footnotes

[1] (Bengali) Literally translates to ‘paternal aunt’, but is sometimes used to address women who are familiar to the speaker.

[2] (Bengali) “Little girl.”

[3] A Unique Identification System introduced by the Indian Govt. in 2009.

[4] (Bengali) Literally translates to ‘maternal aunt’, but is sometimes used as a way of addressing women who are familiar to the speaker.

Cockroach

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