My name is Layla and I was born under an unlucky star. The time and place of my birth makes me a Manglik. For a young girl growing up in India in the 1940’s, this is bad news. The planet Mars is predominant in my Hindu horoscope and this angry, red planet makes people rebellious and militant by nature. Everyone knows I am astrologically doomed and fated never to marry. Marriages in our society are arranged by astrology and nobody wants a warlike bride. Women are meant to be the needle that stitches families together, not the scissor that cuts.
But every thing began to change for me on April 7th, 1943.
Three things happened that day: Boris Ivanov, the famous Russian novelist, slipped on a tuberose at the grand opening ceremony of a new school, fell, and broke his leg; a baby crow fell out of its nest in the mango tree; and I, Layla Roy, aged fifteen years and three days, fell in love with Manik Deb.
The incidents may have remained unconnected, like three tiny droplets on a lily leaf. But the leaf tipped and the drops rolled into one. It was a tiny shift in the cosmos, I believe, that tipped us together—Boris Ivanov, the baby crow, Manik Deb, and me.
It was the inauguration day of the new school: a rainy-sunshine day, I remember well, delicate and ephemeral–the kind locals here in Assam call “jackal wedding days.” I am not sure where the saying comes from, or whether it means good luck or bad, or perhaps a little bit of both. It would seem as though the sky couldn’t decide whether to bless or bemoan the occasion—quite ironic, if you think about it, because that is exactly how some people felt about the new English girls’ school opening in our town.
The demonstrators, on the other hand, were pretty much set in their views. They gathered outside the school gates in their patriotic white clothes, carrying banners with misspelled English slogans like: “INDIA FOR INDANS” and “STOP ENGLIS EDUCATON NOW.”
Earlier that morning, my grandfather, Dadamoshai, the founder of the girls’ school, had chased the demonstrators down the road with his large, formidable umbrella. They had scattered like cockroaches and sought refuge behind the holy banyan tree.
“Retarded donkeys! Imbeciles!” Dadamoshai yelled, shaking his umbrella at the sky. “Learn to spell before you go around demonstrating your nitwit ideas.”
Dadamoshai was a strong advocate of English education and nothing irked him more than the massacre of the English language. The demonstrators knew better than to challenge him. They were just rabble-rousers anyway, stuffed with half-baked ideas by local politicians who knew what to rile against, but not what to fight for. Nobody wanted to butt heads with Dadamoshai. He had once been the most formidable District Judge in the state of Assam. With his mane of flowing hair, his long, sure stride, and deep oratorical voice, he was an imposing figure in our town and people respectfully stepped aside when they saw him coming. To most people he was known simply as the Rai Bahadur, an honorary title bestowed on him by the British for his service to the crown. There was even a road named after him: the Rai Bahadur Road. It’s a very famous road in our town road and anybody can direct you there, yet it appears unnamed on municipal maps because it does not lead to any place and dead ends in a river over which there is no bridge. The Rai Bahadur Road is just that: a beginning and an end unto itself.
* * *
When I arrived at the school that morning the demonstrators were a sorry lot. It had rained some more and the cheap ink from their banners had run, staining their white clothes. What was even sadder was that somebody had tried to hand-correct the spellings with a blue fountain pen. Somewhere down the line, they had simply lost heart. They sat listlessly on their haunches and smoked cigarettes while their limp banners leaned sadly against the wall.
One of them nudged the other when he saw me coming. I heard him say, “It’s her, look—the Rai Bahadur’s granddaughter!”
I must have rekindled their patriotism because they grabbed their banners and blocked my entrance to the school. “No English! India for Indians! No English!” they shouted.
I was wondering how to get past them when I remembered something Dadamoshai told me. Use your mind, Layla, it is the most powerful weapon you have. I continued to walk towards them and pointed my mind like a sword. It worked: they parted to let me through. The gate shut behind me and I walked down the graveled driveway to the new school building. It was an L-shaped structure, freshly whitewashed, with a large unpaved playground and three tamarind trees. Piles of construction debris lay pushed to one side.
The voices of young girls chirruped on the verandah. Students aged nine or ten sat cross-legged on the floor, stringing together garlands of marigold and tuberose to decorate the stage for the inauguration ceremony.
“Layla!” Miss Rose called out from a classroom as I walked past. I peeked through the door. Rose Cabral was sitting at the teacher’s desk, sorting through a pile of printed programs. There was a large world map tacked to the back wall and the room smelled overwhelmingly of varnish. Miss Rose, as she was called, was a young Anglo-Indian teacher with chestnut brown hair and pink cat-eyed glasses with diamond accents. The small fry of the school swooned with adoration for her and wanted to lick her like a lollipop.
Miss Rose was about to say something when she sneezed daintily. “Oh dear,” she said, wiping her nose on a pink handkerchief edged with tatting lace. “I don’t know if it’s the varnish or this fickle weather. Layla, my! How you have grown! What a lovely young woman you are. Are you still being privately tutored by Miss. Johnson, dear?”
“Yes,” I said. “I have my matriculation exams this year.”
“So you must be all ready to get married now, eh? Suitors must be lining up outside your door.”
“Oh no—no, I don’t plan to get married. I want to go to college, actually,” I said quickly. I did not tell her that marriage was not in my cards. It would be hard to explain to her why being born under a certain ill-fated star could negate your chances of finding a husband.
A tiny, round-shouldered girl with thick braids had arrived and was standing, pigeon-toed and fidgeting, in the doorway.
“Yes, what is it, Malika?” Miss Rose said.
“Miss…miss. . .”
“Speak up, child.”
“We have no more white flowers, Miss Rose.”
“Tuberose? I thought we had plenty. Alright, I am coming.” Miss Rose sighed, bunching up her papers. “I better go and see what’s going on. Oh, Layla, there’s a packet of rice powder for you lying on the secretary’s desk in the principal’s office. I suppose you know what it is for?”
“It’s for the alpana I am painting in the entryway,” I said. Miss Rose looked blank, so I explained. “You know, the white designs you see painted on the floor–” I made curlicue shapes in the air, “at Indian weddings and religious ceremonies?”
“Ah, yes. So intricate. Boris Ivanov will like that. He loves Indian art. I hope you have brought your brushes or whatever you need; we don’t have anything here, you know.”
“I don’t need brushes,” I said. “I just use my fingers and a cotton swab. I have that. Miss Rose, is my grandfather still here?”
“He left for the courthouse an hour ago. Said to tell you he will be home for lunch. Boris Ivanov’s train is running three hours late. Let me know if you need anything, Layla. I am here all afternoon. ”
It was close to lunchtime when I got the alpana done, so instead of going to the library as I had planned, I went home. Dadamoshai’s house was a fifteen-minute walk from the school. I went past the holy banyan tree and saw that the protestors had abandoned their banners behind it. The tree was over two hundred years old, massive and gnarled, with thick roots that hung down from the branches like the dreadlocks of demons. In its hollowed root base was a collection of faded gods surrounded by tired marigold garlands. I walked pass the stench of the fish market, the idling rickshaws at the bus stand, and the three crooked tea stalls that supported one another like drunken brothers, till I came to a four-way crossing, where I turned right on to the Rai Bahadur Road.
It was an impressive road, man-made and purposeful: not like the fickle pathways in town, that changed directions with the rain and got bullied by groundcover. The road to my grandfather’s house was wide and tree-lined, with Gulmohor Flame Trees planted at regular intervals: exactly thirty feet apart. Their leafy branches criss-crossed overhead to form a magnificent latticed archway. On summer days the road was flecked with gold, and spring breezes showered down a torrent of vermillion petals that swirled and trembled in the dust like wounded butterflies. Rice fields on either side intersected in quilted patches of green to fade into the shimmering haze of the bamboo grove. Up ahead, the river winked over the tall embankment where fishing nets lay drying on bamboo poles silhouetted against the noonday sun.
I adjusted my eyes. Was that a tall man standing under the mango tree by our front gate? It was indeed. Even at that distance, I could tell he was a foreigner, just by his stance. His legs planted wide, shoulders thrown back, he had that ease of body some foreigners have. I was curious. What was he doing? His hands were folded together and he was gazing up at the branches with what appeared to be deep piety. Oddly enough, it looked like the foreigner was praying to the mango tree!
The man heard me coming and glanced briefly in my direction. He must have expected me to walk on by, but when I stopped at our gate, he looked at me curiously. He was a disconcertingly attractive man in a poetic kind of way, with long, finger-raked hair and dark and steady eyes behind black-framed glasses. A slow smile wavered and tugged at the corners of his mouth.
When I saw what he was holding in his cupped hands, I realized I had misjudged his piety. It was a baby crow.
“You live in the Rai Bahadur’s house?” he asked pleasantly. He spoke impeccable Bengali, with no trace of a foreign accent. I figured he must be an Indian who probably lived abroad.
“Yes,” I said.
The man was obviously unschooled in the nuances of our society, because he stared at me candidly with none of the calculated deference and awkwardness of Indian men. I could feel my ears burning.
The crow chick struggled feebly in his hand. It stretched out a scrawny neck and opened its yellow-rimmed beak, exposing a pink, diamond-shaped mouth. It was bald except for a light grey fuzz over the top of its head. Its blue eyelids stretched gossamer thin over yet unopened eyes.
“We have a displaced youngster,” the man said, glancing at the chick. “Any idea what kind of bird this is?”
“It’s a baby crow,” I replied, marveling how gently he held the tiny creature. It had nodded off to sleep, resting its yellow beak against his thumb. He had nicely shaped fingernails, I noticed.
I pointed up at the branches. “There’s a nest up that mango tree.”
He was not looking at the tree, but at my hand. “What’s that?” he asked suddenly.
“Wh-where?” I jerked back my hand and saw I had traces of the white rice paste still ringed around my fingernails. “Oh,” I said, curling my fingers into a ball, “that’s. . . that’s just from the alpana decoration I was doing at the school.”
“Are you related to the Rai Bahadur?”
“He is my grandfather.”
“Is this the famous English girls’ school everybody is talking about? What’s going on?”
“Today is the grand opening,” I said. “A Russian dignitary is coming to cut the ribbon.”
“Boris Ivanov?” he asked.
I stared at him. “How did you know?”
“Not many Russians floating around this tiny town in Assam, are there? I am well acquainted with Ivanov.”
I wanted to ask more, but refrained.
He tilted his head, squinting up at the branches, then pushed his sliding glasses back up his nose with his arm. The chick woke up with a sharp ‘cheep’ that startled us both. “Ah, I see the nest. Maybe I should try and put this little fellow back,” he said.
“You are going to climb the mango tree?” I asked a little incredulously. The man looked too civilized to climb trees. His shirt was too white and he wore city shoes.
“Looks easy enough.” He looked up and down the branches like he was calculating his foothold. He grinned suddenly, a deep crease softening the side of his face. “If I fall, you can laugh and tell all your friends.”
I had no friends, but I did not tell him that.
“There’s not much point, really,” I hesitated, wondering how I was going say this without sounding too heartless. “You see, this is very common. Baby crows get pushed out of that nest every year by. . .” I moved closer to the tree, shaded my eyes and looked up, then gestured him over. “See that other chick? Stand right where I am standing. Can you see it?”
We were standing so close his shirtsleeve brushed my arm. I could smell the starch mingled with faint sweat and a hint of tobacco. My head reeled slightly.
He tilted his head. “Ah yes, I see the sibling,” he said.
“That’s not a sibling, it’s a baby koel.”
His face drew a blank.
“The Indian cuckoo. Don’t you know anything about koels?”
“I am afraid not,” he said, looking bemused. “But I beg to be educated. Before that, I need to put our friend down someplace; I am getting rather tired of holding him.” He looked around, then walked over to the garden wall and set the baby crow down on the ground. It belly-waddled into a shady patch and stretched out its scrawny neck, cheeping plaintively.
I was about to speak when a cloud broke open and a sheet of golden rain shimmered down. We both hurried under the mango tree. There we were all huddled cozily together—the man, the chick, and me.
A cycle rickshaw clattered down the road. It was fat Mrs. Ghosh, squeezed in among baskets and bundles, on her way home from the fish market. She looked at us curiously, her eyes bulging slightly, perhaps wondering to herself: Am I seeing things? Is that the Rai Bahadur’s granddaughter with a young man under the mango tree? This was going to be big news, I could tell, because everybody in town knew that the Rai Bahadur’s granddaughter avoided the opposite sex like a Hindu avoids beef.
The cloud passed and the sun winked back, and I hurried out from under the tree. To cover up my embarrassment, I launched into an involved lecture on the nesting habits of koels and crows.
“The koel, or Indian cuckoo, is a brood parasite,” I said. “A bird that lays its egg in the nest of another. Like that crow’s nest up there.” I pointed upward with my right hand and then, remembering my crummy fingernails, switched to my left hand. “See how sturdy the nest is? Crows are really clever engineers. They pick the perfect intersections of branches and build the nest with strong twigs. They live in that same nest for years and years.”
“Are their marriages as stable as their nests?” the man winked, teasing me. “Do they last as long?”
“That. . .that I don’t know,” I said, twisting the end of my saree. I wished he would not look at me like that.
“I am only teasing; oh, please go on.”
I took a deep breath and tried to collect myself. “The koel is a genetically aggressive bird. When it hatches, it pushes the baby crows out from the nest, eats voraciously and becomes big and strong. Then it flies off singing into the trees. The poor crows are so baffled.”
The man smiled as he pushed around a pebble with the toe of his shoe. He wore nicely polished brown shoes of expensive leather with small, diamond-shaped, pinpricked patterns.
“And what do the koels do, having shamelessly foisted their offspring onto another?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“Ah, koels are very romantic birds,” I said, “They sing and flirt in flowering branches all summer long, with not a care in the world.”
“Depends how you look at it,” I said, watching him carefully, because I was about to lay the symbolism on thick. “Koels sing and bring joy to the whole world. In some ways they serve a greater good, don’t you think? And getting the crows to raise their chicks is actually quite brilliant.”
“How is that?” he asked, looking at me curiously.
“Well, not all creatures are cut out for domesticity. Some make better parents than others. The chick grows up to be healthy and independent. In many ways, the koels are giving their offspring the best shot at life.”
“Interesting theory,” he said thoughtfully.
He sighed and turned his attention to the baby crow. It lay completely still, breathing laboriously, its flaccid belly distended to one side, beak slightly open. He squatted down and nudged it gently with his forefinger. The chick struggled feebly, opened its mouth and uttered a tiny cheep.
“Still alive,” he said dispassionately. “So what do we do? Just leave it here to die?” I shrugged. “It’s the cat’s lunch.”
He looked at me in a playful sort of way. “Please don’t say you are always so cruel,” he said softly.
I turned and looked out at the distant rice fields where a flock of white cranes was circling to land. “I used to try and save baby crows all the time when I was child,” I said. “But Dadamoshai said I was messing with nature. He thinks we need more songbirds and less scavengers.”
The man stood up and dusted his hands, and then smiled broadly. “I just realized we’ve had a long and involved discussion and I don’t even know your name!”
“Lay-la,” he repeated softly, stretching it out. “I’m Manik Deb. Big admirer of the Rai Bahadur. Actually, I just dropped by the house and left him a note on the coffee table. Will you please see he gets it?”
“I will do that.”
“Goodbye, Layla,” Manik said. “Thanks for the lesson on ornithology. It was most enlightening.”
With that, he turned and walked off down the road toward the river. A thin sheet of golden rain followed Manik Deb, but he did not turn around to see it chasing behind him.
* * *
On the verandah coffee table there was a crushed cigarette stub and a used matchstick in the turtle-shaped brass ashtray. Tucked under the ashtray was a note folded in half, written on the bottom portion of a letterhead that Manik Deb had borrowed from Dadamoshai’s desk. The note was addressed to my grandfather, penned in an elegant, slanted hand:
7th April 1943
Dear Rai Bahadur,
I took a chance and dropped by. I am trying to contact Boris Ivanov and I understand that he is staying with you. Could you please tell him that I would like to meet with him? He knows where to get in touch with me.
I took the folded note and placed it on my grandfather’s desk on top of his daily mail. That way he would see it first thing when he got home.
Later that day, at lunch, I watched my grandfather carefully as he sat across from me. Had he read the note? Who was Manik Deb?
Dadamoshai took his mealtimes very seriously. He always sat very prim and straight at the dining table, like he was a distinguished guest at the Queen’s formal banquet. Most days he and I ate alone. We sat across from each other at the long, mahogany dining table designed for twelve. All the formal dining chairs were gone except four. The others lay scattered about in the verandah, marked with tea stains, their rich brocade fading in the sun. My grandfather had a constant stream of visitors whom he received mostly in the verandah, and it was often that we ran out of chairs.
Dadamoshai had just bathed and smelled of bittersweet neem soap. His usual flyaway hair was neatly combed back from his tall forehead, the comb marks visible like a rake pulled through snow. He was dressed in his home clothes: a crisp white kurta and checkered lungi, a pair of rustic clogs on his feet. His Gandhi-style glasses lay folded neatly by his plate. His bushy brows were furrowed as he deboned a piece of hilsa fish on his plate with the concentration of a micro surgeon. Unlike Indians who ate rice with their fingers, Dadamoshai always used a fork and spoon, a habit he had picked up from his England days. The dexterity with which he removed minuscule bones from Bengali curried fish without ever using his fingers was a feat worth watching.
“A man came by to see you this morning, Dadamoshai,” I said nonchalantly, but I was overdoing it, I could tell. I helped myself to the rice and clattered noisily with the serving spoon.
Dadamoshai did not reply. I wondered if he had heard me.
“Ah, yes,” he said finally, “Manik Deb. Rhodes scholar from Oxford and…” he paused to tap a hair-thin fish bone with his fork to the rim of his plate, “Bimal Sen’s future son-in-law.”
“Kona’s…fiancé?” I was incredulous with shock.
“Yes,” said Dadamoshai, banging the saltshaker on the dining table. The salt had clumped with the humidity. He shook his head. “That Bimal Sen should think of educating his daughter instead of palming her off onto a husband. With money, you can buy an educated son-in-law, even a brilliant one like Manik Deb; but the fact remains, your daughter’s head is going to remain empty as a green coconut.”
I was feeling very disconcerted. Bimal Sen was the richest man in town. The family lived four houses down from us, in an ostentatious strawberry pink mansion rumored to have three kitchens, four verandahs with curving balustrades, and a walled-in courtyard with half a dozen peacocks strutting in the yard. The Sens were a business family, very traditional and conservative. Kona was rarely seen alone in public. Her mother, Mrs. Sen, was built like a river barge and towed her daughter around like a tiny dinghy. I remembered Kona vaguely as a moonfaced girl with downcast eyes. I knew she had been engaged to be married since she was a child. It was an arranged match between the two families, but I had not expected her to marry the likes of Manik Deb. It was like pairing a stallion with a cow.
“Is he Bengali?” I finally asked. Had I known Manik Deb was Kona’s fiancé, I would have avoided talking to him, let alone engaging in silly banter about koels and crows. My ears burned at the memory.
“Oh, yes. He is a Sylheti like us,” Dadamoshai said. “The Debs are a well-known family of Borishol. Landowners. I knew Manik’s father from my Cambridge days. We passed our bar at the Lincoln Inn together.”
Borishol was Dadamoshai’s ancestral village in Sylhet, East Bengal, across the big Padma River. The Sylhetis were evicted from their homeland by Muslim invaders in 1917. Once displaced, they became river people. Like the water hyacinth, their roots never touched the ground, but grew instead towards one another. Wherever they settled, they were a close-knit community. You could tell they were river people just by the way they called out to one another. It could be just across the fence in someone’s backyard, but their voices carried that lonely sound that spanned vast waters. It was the voice of displacement and loss, the voice that sought to connect with a brother from a lost homeland—and the voice that led Dadamoshai to connect with Manik Deb’s father in England.
“A most extraordinary young man, this Manik Deb,” Dadamoshai was saying, helping himself to some rice.
“How so?” I asked. My appetite was gone, but my stomach gnawed with questions.
“Well, what makes Manik Deb—like you say—so extraordinary?” I tried to feign non-interest, but my voice squeaked with curiosity. I absent-mindedly shaped a hole in the mound of rice on my plate.
“He has an incisive, analytical mind, for one thing. Manik Deb has joined the Civil Service. His is the kind of brains we need for our new India.”
Chaya, our housekeeper, had just entered the dining room with a bowl of curds. She was a slim woman with soft brown eyes and a disfiguring burn scar that fused the skin on the right side of her face like smooth molten wax. It was an acid burn. When Chaya was sixteen, she had fallen in love with a Muslim man. The Hindu villagers killed her lover, and then flung acid on her face to mark her as a social outcast. Dadamoshai had rescued Chaya from a violent mob and taken her into his custody. What followed was a lengthy and controversial court case. Several people went to jail.
Dadamoshai turned to address her. “Chaya, Boris sahib will be having dinner with us tonight. Please remember to serve the good rice and prepare everything with less spice.”
With that, Dadamoshai launched on a long discussion of menu items suitable for Boris Ivanov’s meal, and Manik Deb was left floating, a bright pennant in the distant field of my memory.
Teatime for the Firefly
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
- ISBN-10: 0778315479
- ISBN-13: 9780778315476