Soumya Bhat­tacharya

Pi­geon Feath­ers

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

At the time the boy had no idea that this was the last thing they were do­ing as a fam­ily.

He was the one who had dis­cov­ered the pi­geon. It was plump and seemed canny, and sat im­mo­bile for hours in the pot be­hind the tall plant on the ledge of the kitchen win­dow. In­ter­mit­tently it snapped its head from side to side as though alert to pry­ing eyes or dan­ger, ‘Ma, Ma! Mamma!’ he shrieked, tak­ing care to let his breath out only when he was out of the kitchen. He ran full tilt across the liv­ing room where his fa­ther sat read­ing, and into his par­ents’ bed­room.

Usu­ally he would have first at­tracted his fa­ther’s at­ten­tion on see­ing some­thing out of the or­di­nary. But this was some­thing out of the or­di­nary in the kitchen, and that was his mother’s do­main; his fa­ther tended to af­fect ig­no­rance about what hap­pened in­side the kitchen al­though he showed great keen­ness and oc­ca­sional ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what emerged from it. Be­sides, his fa­ther had seemed dis­tracted and ir­ri­ta­ble for some days now. Must be the of­fice.

Mrs Malini Chaud­huri turned from the French win­dows that ran along the length of one of the bed­room walls. She was look­ing at the bank of green that they could see from their twelfth-floor apart­ment, the waxy irides­cence im­parted to the leaves by a spell of sun­light af­ter a fierce shower. This view was one of the rea­sons why they had cho­sen to rent this place so many years ago. They could barely af­ford it then. Now the fact that they had been hard pressed to rent it as well as the mem­ory that they had taken to­gether, she and her hus­band, in am­i­ca­ble in­ti­macy, such a cru­cial de­ci­sion, seemed im­pos­si­bly dis­tant, al­most im­pos­si­ble. For years, the rent had no longer pinched. But they knew that, with a sin­gle in­come, how­ever gen­er­ous, they would not, like most of their neigh­bours, ever be able to buy this apart­ment.

They were merely ten­ants; none­the­less, 12A, Im­pe­rial Heights, had come to rep­re­sent their no­tion of a home of their own.

The weather was of the in­de­ci­sive sort that can’t make up its mind about whether to be sunny and cloudy. She in­haled the moist­ness in the air.

‘Arnab, be care­ful, don’t up­set the vase. What it is it?’

The boy would not tell her. His hair flop­ping (Malini made a men­tal note about his hair­cut), he dragged his mother to the kitchen and, silent, tense with ex­pec­ta­tion and ex­cite­ment, pointed at the pi­geon.

The bird paid them no at­ten­tion. It shifted slightly on the mound of soil be­neath the plant, its back to the raised brown rim of the pot, snug.

‘She will lay eggs there, Arnab. Don’t dis­turb her,’ Malini said. The boy sti­fled a squeal, un­able to quite be­lieve that this drama was un­fold­ing in their kitchen. ‘Take a photo with your phone, Mama, take a photo. Right now.’

He tum­bled out of the kitchen and, stand­ing in the hall­way, did a fist pump. ‘Yay’. He skipped into the liv­ing room to tell his fa­ther.

When Sam­rat Chaud­huri am­bled into the kitchen with Arnab tip­toe­ing in front of him, Malini was drain­ing pasta at the sink. They held each other’s gaze for a mo­ment, but did not speak. ‘Lunch will be ready at one,’ said Malini, look­ing at the sieve. Th­ese days, es­pe­cially in front of their son, they found it hard to look at each other when they spoke. It was as though they were both com­plicit in a be­trayal: ashamed of the fact that things had come to this; dis­ap­pointed that they had; and guilty that they had not yet been able to bring them­selves to be forth­right with the boy.

As Sam­rat and Arnab neared the win­dow, the bird plumped up her feath­ers.

‘Ah, we’ll have eggs soon, Arnab. Would you like to eat the eggs?’ The boy looked up, be­wil­dered. ‘I want to see the chicks hatch.’

Sam­rat ruf­fled his son’s hair. Arnab had grown taller over the past year. He now came up to Sam­rat’s waist. He nuz­zled his fa­ther’s stom­ach. Sam­rat held him close, rather too tight, and for rather too long. The boy had to ex­tri­cate him­self af­ter a lit­tle while.

The eggs ar­rived two days later. It was a Tues­day. Arnab rang up his fa­ther. Sam­rat was in the mid­dle of a meet­ing with an im­por­tant client who said the ad­ver­tis­ing cre­ative for a new sham­poo was too clut­tered and the copy didn’t quite com­mu­ni­cate how unique the prod­uct was. ‘Ex­cuse me, sorry,’ he said, glad for the in­ter­rup­tion, and stepped out of the con­fer­ence room.

‘Baba, the eggs are here. I saw them.’ ‘Why are you speak­ing in a whis­per? I can barely hear.’ ‘Be­cause I don’t want to scare her.’ ‘Can’t you walk out on to the bal­cony?’

Si­lence. ‘Yes, I am in the bal­cony now. I can’t be­lieve it. One of them is slightly brown­ish. In bits. There is some­thing on it. I don’t know what that is. The other one is pure white.’

Sam­rat smiled. ‘Good. I’ll see them when I am home.’

‘No, it will be too dark then to see them then. That’s why I am de­scrib­ing them to you.’

‘Oh, thanks. I’ll see them to­mor­row, in that case.’ ‘Baba?’

‘I’ve got to go. I’m sorry.’ ‘No, one mo­ment, Baba... When will the chicks come out?’ ‘You need to be pa­tient. We may not get chicks. Let’s see if we are lucky.’ ‘Why don’t all eggs give chicks? Baba?’ ‘Look, I’ve got to go. Ask Mamma. Where is she?’ ‘On the other phone. Dis­cussing home­work with Paul’s mum.’

‘I see. All right, see you in the evening.’ Sam­rat walked back to the charged at­mos­phere of the con­fer­ence room. He could see Malini, her legs folded be­neath her, a pen in hand, sit­ting close to the win­dow, sort­ing out the home­work. Her hair must have in it the gleam of the af­ter­noon sun.

From that af­ter­noon, Arnab be­gan to have his break­fast and lunch in the kitchen. He would eat stand­ing up at the counter, along­side the sink, el­e­vated by a small stool to the height that was just right for him. As he ate, he looked at the pi­geon, ob­serv­ing her ev­ery lit­tle move­ment, keep­ing an eye on the eggs when she ad­justed her body.

On Fri­day, the first egg hatched. Arnab re­turned from school to see some­thing tiny and brown, quite un­like a bird, quite un­like the chicks he had seen in his pic­ture books when he was smaller, on the soil. It had no beak. You could hardly tell one part of its body from an­other. You could hardly tell that it had a body, or parts. Shells lay all around it, and the fluffy thing was largely cov­ered by its mother most of the time.

The sec­ond, iden­ti­cal chick he spot­ted af­ter break­fast on Satur­day. Arnab’s mother be­gan to com­plain that it was get­ting to be im­pos­si­ble to drag him out of the kitchen. He stopped play­ing with his friends down­stairs; he of­fered to do his home­work in the kitchen, in the man­ner in which he ate, stand­ing on a stool be­side the sink with his ex­er­cise book on the counter.

‘We’ll have to tell him. How long can we go on like this?’ Malini said on Satur­day night. She was dab­bing, in pre­cise, firm, cir­cu­lar mo­tions, mois­turiser – and a host of other unguents – on her face. She still looked about ten years younger than her thirty-six. Sam­rat gave her a look, a quick one, in the mir­ror.

‘But he is so ab­sorbed with those birds. Let’s see what hap­pens to them. Let that ex­cite­ment sub­side a bit.’

‘Yes, it would be a shame to hit him with this now.’ Malini sighed.

Car­ing for th­ese birds was the last thing they were do­ing as a fam­ily, they both knew. They did not know whether they were glad that it had al­lowed them to put off an­nounc­ing to Arnab the news of their im­pend­ing sep­a­ra­tion. They had no idea if he sensed any­thing. He was a very bright child. But he had not let on. And they couldn’t dare guess how he would take it.

Sam­rat and Malini now slept on ei­ther side of their king­sized bed, each to­wards one edge, curled up on their sides, their backs to each other, tak­ing up as lit­tle space as pos­si­ble. It seemed as though they were con­scious, even while asleep, that it would not do to face each other, far less drift to­wards one an­other. They had bought sep­a­rate blan­kets some weeks ago.

Some­times, when dur­ing the course of mov­ing around in the flat, they in­ad­ver­tently touched one an­other, they said sorry. They sup­posed that this is not how it would be later, in the years to come when they had rec­on­ciled them­selves to the event; they imag­ined, both of them, that they would be friendly to each other, that they would be ma­ture, and that they would both be there for Arnab. He mustn’t suf­fer on ac­count of their folly. Now, in the weeks of ad­just­ing to a state that was a new ac­tu­al­ity, but, still with­held from their son, wasn’t yet an of­fi­cial one, wasn’t quite real, they floun­dered and were dif­fi­dent with each other.

As they had had for years, they still had drinks and a home cooked spe­cial din­ner to­gether on Satur­day nights. They con­tin­ued to up­hold the cus­tom as

much for the sake of the boy – who, if both his par­ents were at home, had never seen them de­vi­ate from this rit­ual – as from a sense of habit or even from a want of any­thing else to do. And on some of th­ese oc­ca­sions, af­ter the cof­fee, one of them would un­self­con­sciously put his or her hand on the other – an un­spo­ken code that meant no, I will wash the mugs, no, I will put out the break­fast things for to­mor­row. In those mo­ments, Sam­rat and Malini felt as if they were to­gether mourn­ing the demise of some­thing that was once more pre­cious to them than any­thing else. Mourn­ing, but from a sort of dis­tance; griev­ing for some­thing that they had de­lib­er­ately given up rights to grieve over any longer. Back in the bed­room, out of sight of their son, they would re­treat to their sep­a­rate sides of the bed. Once they would cleave to each other. Now they had been cleaved apart.

How had it come to this?

How did it? How does some­thing come to be some­thing else? Is it re­ally pos­si­ble to know when the thing it­self is chang­ing all the time?

Sam­rat and Malini had tried. They had tried to parse it, break it down, find rea­sons, find so­lu­tions, pro­cras­ti­nated, been in de­nial. And in the end, af­ter so many years, so many years of try­ing, they had to ac­knowl­edge it. There was no es­cape from it any longer. And what it came down to was three words: It wasn’t work­ing. What­ever ‘it’ was. There had been no ob­vi­ous be­trayal. Or at least no ob­vi­ous be­trayal con­cern­ing some­one of the op­po­site gen­der. Af­ter the fights, af­ter the ne­go­ti­a­tions, af­ter the at­tempts to fix what was ev­i­dently bro­ken, they had merely ar­rived at the end of some­thing. Mu­tual in­com­patil­bity, the courts called it. Not a bad phrase. As vague as it was ac­cu­rate. Why not, when, one of the rea­sons why one mar­ried was the vague and ac­cu­rate hope of mu­tual com­pat­i­bil­ity?

But not even now, at this stage when they were as weary of what it had come to as wary of what lay ahead, could they ex­plain ei­ther to them­selves or to each other ex­actly how it had come to this.

Each of us re­mem­bers the same story in dif­fer­ent ways.

The chicks were be­gin­ning to look like chicks. They had eyes now, and small, pointed orange beaks. They had lost much of their down, but had not yet ac­quired plumage, and still did not re­sem­ble their mother. Arnab would some­times spot them on their own dur­ing the af­ter­noon, con­cealed be­hind the plant, and no­tice the mother re­turn to­wards the evening. He watched her feed them, trans­fer­ring food to their beaks from her own. Of­ten, there would be more food around them, on the cold soil, and all over the kitchen ledge, than in­side them. And the ledge and the plates and cups put out there to dry would be full of feath­ers they had shed.

‘They are a real nui­sance,’ Malini said in ex­as­per­a­tion one af­ter­noon. ‘This place stinks, and it is filthy be­yond be­lief. The maid has to wash all the uten­sils twice over.’ She glared at Arnab, as though it was all some­how his fault. Arnab said noth­ing. He gave his mother a look made up in equal parts of be­muse­ment and re­proach.

He be­gan to no­tice an­other pi­geon pay­ing them the oc­ca­sional visit. ‘That must be the fa­ther. He has be­gun to come to visit,’ Arnab told Malini. ‘Where was he all this while? Do you think the chicks miss their fa­ther? He comes only so sel­dom.’

He gave them names, Franny and Zooey, picked up from a book of Sam­rat’s that was ly­ing face down on the cof­fee ta­ble. He could tell one apart from the other. Franny was the swifter learner, and the faster grower. It be­gan to wad­dle around be­fore Zooey could (‘Looks like Shane Warne com­ing into bowl,’ Sam­rat said to Arnab, and they both laughed aloud at the joke.). It started to flap its wings with en­ergy and ea­ger­ness as Zooey looked on, silent and still.

‘They will grow up and fly away soon, Arnab,’ Malini said one night over din­ner. She did not look at Sam­rat. She knew that he wouldn’t look up from his plate. And she knew he knew why she had said that, how their de­par­ture would mean that they would no longer be able to post­pone telling their son about their now-cleaved life – and his.

Rakesh, their driver, knew some­thing was se­ri­ously amiss, that some­thing had gone gravely wrong in the house­hold in which he now felt so much at home. Sam­rat, who would pre­vi­ously only grunt the names of places to which he wanted to be driven to, would sud­denly be­come lo­qua­cious, ask­ing him about his fa­ther or when he next wanted to visit his mother in the vil­lage in Ut­tar Pradesh in which she lived or how the plans for his sis­ter’s wed­ding were com­ing along.

Malini, for so long the ful­crum around which his work­ing day re­volved, had be­come with­drawn, tac­i­turn. She seemed mostly dis­tracted. Through his rear view mir­ror, Rakesh could see her look­ing out of the win­dow, and not pat­ting her hair back af­ter it had be­come wind­blown. She still went on shop­ping ex­pe­di­tions, but she rarely emerged, even if laden with those huge bags, with her face flushed with plea­sure. No longer would she so­licit his opin­ion on which route to take. In­stead, rather like Sam­rat in the old days, she would sim­ply say where she wished to go. Once, when Rakesh asked her if she pre­ferred one route to the other, she said: ‘Oh, it doesn’t mat­ter, let’s just get there as quickly as we can.’

Zooey be­came in­fected with some­thing to­wards the mid­dle of the fol­low­ing week. They couldn’t be sure what it was be­cause they couldn’t get too close to them. On their ap­proach, the mother would flap her wings, and turn around, full of a re­solve and ag­gres­sion they had not seen in her be­fore. Zooey’s body seemed full of ticks or lice or some­thing like that. In a day, it spread to Franny.

The mag­gots ar­rived soon af­ter. They were fol­lowed by crows, crowds of them, keep­ing their dis­tance but caw­ing and flap­ping around, some­times alight­ing on the ledge to see what was hap­pen­ing be­hind the tall plant. Zooey had learnt by fly by now, but seemed too en­fee­bled to try. Franny could muster merely an un­steady shuf­fle. Other pi­geons came in to roost around the plant, as though on a vigil. The mother rarely left her chicks. The bird that Arnab thought of as the fa­ther – al­though he could no longer be sure given that there were so many of them, so many that the ledge seemed to be not big enough – came to visit more of­ten. And all the time,

there was the ca­coph­ony of the crows, lung­ing and leav­ing, taunt­ing and dar­ing the pi­geons with their harsh cries.

Arnab no longer ate stand­ing up in the kitchen. He did his home­work in his own room, but in the af­ter­noons, the rustling and flap­ping, the over­turn­ing of the odd uten­sil and the caw­ing, up­set him. When he peeped at the lit­tle birds on whom he had in­vested so much time and emo­tion, he felt fright­ened: the fe­roc­ity of the crows scared him; the pi­geons, so many in num­ber, pan­icked yet de­ter­mined, were no longer a source of curiosity or cause for delight; and Franny and Zooey, smoth­ered and ugly, their bod­ies dis­eased, seemed noth­ing like the birds he had chris­tened so re­cently.

‘Those chicks. We can’t go on like this. The kitchen is a mess. And I am wor­ried that Arnab might catch some­thing from all that filth,’ Malini said one evening later that week. ‘The filth is all over the uten­sils.’

‘But how can we get rid of them?’ Sam­rat asked, his voice low, some­thing in it be­tween timid­ity and ap­pre­hen­sion.

‘I know what to do.’ Malini usu­ally did.

On the way to school the fol­low­ing morn­ing, she told Arnab that they could no longer have the pi­geons on the ledge. She ex­plained what they would do with the chicks. She said it in her kind but firm voice, a voice that sug­gested she knew it would be hard for Arnab, hard for all of them, but that there was no choice but to do the hard thing. Arnab knew the tone well. He knew that when his mother used it, it meant that she would brook no dis­cus­sion about the mat­ter at hand.

‘But if we leave Franny and Zooey down­stairs, will the cats get them?’ ‘Let’s hope not, Arnab.’ ‘Zooey can at least fly. Franny can’t. What about Franny?’

‘They each will have to make their own luck, just as all of us do.’

As Rakesh slid the car into its park­ing slot af­ter they had got home, Malini asked him to come up­stairs. She told him what needed to be done.

Rakesh was good at th­ese things. He was fear­less and dex­ter­ous. He had once killed a rat that was wreak­ing havoc in the Chaud­huris’ apart­ment. The rat had eluded the watch­man for three days.

Malini could not bear to watch. She went to the bed­room and put on Kishori Amonkar as Rakesh en­tered the kitchen. Amid the flap­ping and shriek­ing, Rakesh grasped one chick, took it down­stairs, left it con­cealed be­hind the rain­wa­ter pipe. He came back up­stairs, picked up the other one, and left it next to its si­b­ling. The mother had left the nest as soon as Rakesh had picked up the first chick. He did not see her when he was done with leav­ing Franny and Zooey down­stairs.

When Arnab came home that af­ter­noon, the ledge had been scrubbed clean. The plant and its pot had been thrown away. Silent, the boy stood for a long time and stared at the empty space. The sun glared through the win­dow.

It seemed to him like the end of some­thing. He did not yet know what it was the be­gin­ning of.

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