THE LAST HOURS OF THE PAST
Howrah, November 1988
I often think to myself that so many different films could share a single title: The Last Hours of Their Lives. Only the characters never know this, and hurtle along with a truly moving degree of unawareness and vigour, doing both significant and trivial things as usual in the full expectation of living forever.
My brother and I are with our dad at Howrah station to meet our grandmother off the train, but have learnt upon getting here that it’s running two hours late. Which is certainly not enough time to return home, and Baba doesn’t think it’s even worth heading back as far as Esplanade or Park Street for some kind of snack or treat. It will probably take half an hour getting there, crawling along Brabourne Road, and then we’ll have to come back. Let’s see what there is to eat at the station instead.
Dada wants idlis, while I pick an egg-mutton roll, and Baba opts for shingaras. At one point, each of us is queuing outside a at his bench with my roll, so I turn down every plea for a bite. Baba, though, has brought along an extra telebhaja for each of us. Dada wolfs his down in two bites: I tell him magnanimously he can have mine as well. In truth, I’m no fan of piyaajis.
But all of that action takes barely twenty minutes, and Dada and I are twelve and nine, respectively. An hour and a half without a ball or bat or TV screen or at least a book (this is 1988, remember) is an abyss without end. Instead of frustrating himself by trying to entertain us any further, Baba reminds us that we should meet back here on platform 14 in exactly an hour, at this bench, next to the magazine stall, where Dada and I know he’s about to buy himself The Statesman (we get The Telegraph at home) and most probably a Sunday to pass the time (because we subscribe to India Today). I try my luck and ask if we could have a comic each. Baba says, one comic: will you be able to agree and share? I want a Mandrake, Dada a Phantom; we agree on Archie, but Baba shakes his head — too expensive. Dada and I look at one another and plump for Plan A, to have a wander around the station instead. Baba makes us promise before we head off: no separating. You have to be together all the time.
And that is the only promise we actually keep over the next ten hours.
It is at the far end of platform 1 that Dada notices a small revolving gate set within the boundary wall, which a number of passengers just coming off a local train are using to leave the station. There seems to be a well-lit roadside market just outside, and he suggests taking a look. I am reluctant because we’ve never been to the town of Howrah before, although of course we’ve been using the station all our lives, but Dada replies that we won’t have any time to go beyond the market. But look, we still have nearly an hour to kill, which is just long enough to have a wander and come back through the gate. Otherwise it’s going to be more of the same boring platforms. What else is left to see here?
I have in truth been enjoying the bustle on the platforms we’d walked along, with a train to Bhubaneswar and the Bombay Mail via Allahabad about to set off on two of them, and a third — platform 1 — at which a local train from Bandel had just pulled in. We’d been dodging people rushing to and fro, getting out of the way of luggage-laden coolies on the long-distance platforms, checking out the girls to spot the pretty ones and seeing if they glanced back at us. The roadside market doesn’t look especially exciting to me, but I give in, since it’s just over there, and the gate is a simple one that can’t be shut. I mention I’m not carrying any money, and that Baba hadn’t given us any. Dada replies that he isn’t thinking of buying anything, just passing time.
The change over him comes suddenly, or perhaps it has been gradual and I’ve been too distracted by the activity and traffic to notice. Besides the bigger shops, there are people selling vegetables, fruit, plastic toys, T-shirts, flowers, men’s and women’s underwear and plastic chairs and mugs and buckets from stalls on the footpaths or simply gunny sacks spread out on the roadside. Through the space left in the middle of the road between the vendors on either side are passing entangled streams of bicycles, rickshaws and pedestrians as well as shoppers, and also the occasional crawling taxi or minibus, which each time misses the edges of the vendors’ stalls by inches. There is as much to look at as to look out for, even at 9.30 in the evening.
I’m just about to ask Dada if he’s had enough and would like to turn around when he grips my arm with a question which I think at first I’ve misheard.
‘Do you want to see our house?’
‘Let’s go. I’ll show you our house.’
‘Our house. It’s not far away.’
I’m still certain I am misunderstanding him because our house is in fact extremely distant, on the other side of the river in Ballygunge Place. There is no possible short-cut through this market to our house, and absolutely no way for any shortcut to be within walking distance. Dada has got his geography horribly wrong.
‘Not our house, silly. My house, where Ma, Didi and I lived for three years. I used to come here for walks with Champadi, who looked after me, to buy treats and to see the trains.’
Light at last. You see, Dada (his name is Ashim) is actually my half-brother. His mother and Baba divorced when he was a toddler, and Baba married my mother shortly after. I was born the following year. What Dada was now telling me was that after the divorce he, his older sister (Aranya, whom I too called Didi) and their mother had lived all the way out here in Howrah for a number of years. I knew nothing about this chapter of his life. Dada and Didi had moved in with us the year before last, in September ’86, after their mother had sadly died of cancer. I had never met her, but my half-siblings were among my best friends now. And we were here today to meet Baba’s mother, our shared grandmother, off the train.
With Thamma’s train in mind, I check with Dada how far away this house is, on foot.
‘Ten minutes maximum, and we can run some of the way and make it quicker. We’ll be back here within twenty-five minutes. What’s the time now; about nine-thirty-four, right? Thamma’s train is supposed to get in at ten-thirty. We’ll be with Baba by ten past ten if we leave right now.’
But Baba wanted us back by ten, I counter.
‘Achcha, chol na. We’re wasting time with this conversation. Or else tell you what, you go back to Platform 14 and sit safely next to Baba. Tell him where I am. He knows the house.’
‘Why do you need to see this house so much?’
‘Because we spent three years here, and I’ve never had a chance to come back. It didn’t even cross my mind that we could go today. It’s only because we arrived at this far end of the station and then saw this market that I suddenly remembered.
‘Look, we are really wasting time. You don’t have to come. In fact, it’s better if you tell Baba where I’ve gone. He’ll understand. But we never come to Howrah other than to catch a train, and I need to take this chance to see the house. It’s the first place we lived in with Ma all by ourselves.’
So of course I go along. I can easily see what his defiance and vehemence are masking. I never met their mother, but have a fair idea from the two years they’ve been living with us of how much he and Didi miss her. Try as she does to be loving and attentive towards all of us, there is no way my Ma can make up for that absence, and no way I can comprehend the scale of their loss. I realise immediately that I’m being petty to worry about a ten-minute delay. In fact, I regret that Didi isn’t with us. She’d wanted to come, but Baba said with Thamma and two suitcases on the way back, there wouldn’t be enough room in our Fiat.
For the first three turns after we leave the bright market road, Dada seems confident of his route. Reflecting on it afterwards, and wishing to give him the benefit of the doubt, he probably would have led us easily to the house, as he’d claimed, if the power cut hadn’t happened. Or if it had happened just minutes before, while we were still at the market, where we could have asked at one of fifty shops for directions. When it comes, at 9.41 on my sliding Mickey Mouse wristwatch, we’re caught right in the middle, and probably much closer to the house than to the station (as Dada insists).
We stand to one side trying to decide what to do. I point out that these residential lanes are pitch black just now, with no shops switching on generators or even kerosene lanterns here, and that he might not be able to spot his exact house, or even see much of it in any case. But we can still return while the thread of our route remains clear.
‘But I might be two minutes away . . .’ ‘OK, tell me which turn comes next. Do you remember any landmark? You recognised the sweet shop at the first turn, and the hand pump at the next corner.’
Dada looks ahead as if trying to answer me. I’m feeling frustrated, but then have a brainwave. I should say that as we have entered deeper into the neighbourhood, the lanes have got both narrow and quiet. The bustle on the market road, although only a five-minute walk behind us, seems like another time of day. No one has walked past us in the last couple of minutes on this late November night at a quarter to ten, nor can we make out any open shops.
But what I’ve realised is that the next passer-by or rickshaw, whoever they are, will be able to help us, just as long as they’re locals.
‘Dada, we don’t need a landmark. Do you remember the postal address? We’ll ask the next person who comes along, and I’m sure they’ll know.’
In the dark, I cannot make out his expression, but I’m exultant. Why hadn’t this occurred to us at the market itself? Because the power was on, and he’d seemed so sure of his way. All we need is the name of the lane, perhaps not even the house number. Once we reach the right lane, Dada would immediately know where he was.
He doesn’t answer me, but something about my question might have jogged his memory, because he resumes walking and then turns around, pointing towards our next turn from about twenty metres away. Great, I shout, but look, it’s 9.47. How far do you think it is? There are no other voices, certainly none as loud as mine, coming from the houses around us. Perhaps there are glimmers of candlelight visible through curtains or the slats in the window shutters, but as of now, not one further passer-by whom we could stop for directions.
As I walk, I think about my father, who is a pretty relaxed disciplinarian to the two of us (Didi in the time I’ve known her has never merited even a scolding). He might allow us as much as a fifteen-minute grace period, even though the reason he was so precise about a return time is the watch I’m wearing, a Puja present from just the month before, as well as the clocks on every platform. After all, he was never expecting us to leave the brightly lit station. In his time with us, Dada knows Baba to be forgiving of such delays to an extent my mother would never be, and that’s why he’s pushing the limit.
And then I add to myself that Baba would certainly excuse him the moment Dada tells him where we’d been. In fact, the only person we need to be careful of not holding up is our grandmother. We have to be back before her train arrives. Causing Thamma anxiety would be something Baba wouldn’t forgive quite as easily. We had been constantly reminded before this visit of her high blood-sugar level, and how she was coming to us to visit a specialist to try to bring this down. Besides, she would also be exhausted from travelling all day, first by car from Hazaribagh — our father’s birthplace, where Thamma still lived — to Dhanbad, and then this delayed train journey.
But as I follow Dada down lane after lane — the turns are now coming much more quickly, and each successive lane is narrower; for instance, where we are now, only a rickshaw could pass, the open drains on either side wouldn’t permit cars — even the extra twenty minutes or so that I have generously granted ourselves on Baba’s behalf are being eaten up, especially when I also think about our return. This is how my mind is whirring as I struggle to keep pace with my fast-walking brother, always five metres ahead, answering nothing any more: two minutes to our destination, say, from here, then three to four minutes outside the house as he takes it in, points out things to me, shares some memories of living there, pauses to think about his Ma. Then we start running back. Not walking, because that won’t be quick enough, but jogging at least. Hopefully he’s doing a
mental Hansel and Gretel as we’re proceeding just now and throwing down breadcrumbs as we go, and there won’t be any errors because we’ll be able to verify one another’s recollections and make all the right turns. And with a bit of luck this might turn out to be an unusually brief power cut and even the lights will come back on, and we’ll see the glow of the station and the market from far away. Yup, seventeen minutes from here on should just about do it, assuming no further wrong turns, not lingering too long in front of the house, and oh, don’t forget to add at least five minutes of close-to-sprinting once we’re inside the station because, remember, we’ll enter near the far end of platform 1, and Baba’s waiting at platform 14. So that’s actually 10.25 if I’m being realistic . . . but what if we bring a coolie along with us — we can say we got late trying to find a coolie for Thamma’s suitcases.
We’re standing outside a massive factory gate four minutes later. No, of course this isn’t my half-brother’s former home, which we appear (finally) to have given up on. Instead, he’s settled for a suddenly glimpsed consolation prize — this factory compound which had been closed even while they lived here, but the little door embedded in the gate used to be merely bolted, and Dada and his ayah Champadi apparently spent several afternoons just like lots of other local kids freely exploring the place, which, he tells me, had seemed to him at the time like the inside of an enormous fortress.
We’ve come upon the factory by chance: he hadn’t even mentioned it until he noticed the towering chimney to our left. We’d just emerged from a warren of narrow, inky alleyways, and at that point our eventual goal had been scaled back to merely sighting a main road once more, by which we meant anything wide enough at least for rickshaws. The power cut had completely thrown Dada’s sense of direction, but it took him a while to admit this. For our final couple of minutes inside that maze of by-lanes we’d been sprinting, with no regard for the darkness or stray bricks or open manholes or the drains on either side, me following him, looking only for the slight glowat one end of the next alley that might indicate a broader road. And then we found it, and there was also this factory. Standing outside the giant gates and taking in both the chimney looming above us as well as the high boundary walls on either side (the fortress comparison was a good one), I have perversely been putting off glancing at my watch, scared of what I would find. When I finally dare, it is 9.58, which in fact falls short of my worst fears. But Baba will be expecting us within the next two minutes. And we have half an hour before Thamma’s train is due.
‘Do you think this road itself leads back to the station?’ All of a sudden, I’ve had another startlingly logical insight, and am in truth a little dazzled by my own responses to extreme pressure. This is genius-level clarity at such a time. Between the factory gate and Howrah station must be a broad road, surely, for materials to go back and forth, everything the factory needed and also for whatever it once made. This road we’re standing on, for instance, it’s wide enough for a lorry. Perhaps we only need to stay on it, walking possibly in that direction to our left if it were up to me to choose, and it’ll take us back to the end of one platform or another.
‘Let’s run this way. I’m certain it leads to the station. Maybe even via the market. We just won’t leave this road at any point.’ But Dada is obviously not listening, because he is candid enough to admit something else just then — that he can’t remember the way between the factory and their home. I’m aghast he is still trying, but consciously strive to keep this out of my voice. Right now, even though I’m the younger brother, I’ve realised I need to be the one who undertakes to deliver us both back to Baba. Dada has his mind solely on his impossible goal: he doesn’t even seem to be concerned about our return.
‘That’s fine, Dada. You were what, five, when you left here? I understand. And then the power cut happened at the worst possible time. But look, I think this road will take us back to the station. Maybe it’s not even especially far, because who knows how much time we lost wandering in those lanes? We could be just ten minutes from the market, and less if we run.’
When he doesn’t reply to even this exciting possibility, I try another tack. The time for accusations is later. We have to work together just now.
‘Listen, what if we make Baba promise to bring all of us, you, Didi and me, because I want to see it too, to this house as soon as possible? He’ll definitely know the address, and we can come during Thamma’s visit. That way she and Didi will also be here.’
And I underline what I’m implying, just in case it isn’t clear: we have to return to the station immediately and, unless he has any better ideas, mine is the route we’re taking. And even if there’s a flaw in my reasoning and this isn’t the station road, it’s our best chance to meet a passer-by or a rickshaw that could set us straight. We absolutely can’t find his house today. You hear me, Dada, we absolutely can’t find your house today. We had our chance and now we’ve run out of time. Baba will bite our heads off if we keep Thamma waiting close to eleven at night, and that is why I’m leaving, whether you’re coming or not.
For about thirty metres I walk in my chosen direction (following only intuition, no guiding star or any kind of reliable clue), looking regularly to see if Dada is following me. What I want to do more than anything is run, but I can’t, not until I’m certain he is coming, even though I’ve proclaimed the fact that I will stick to this road unless a very persuasive alternative comes along. Despite my deep frustration, I cannot desert my brother, who is just as lost as I am. Or I should rephrase that, because even in that state, I’m dimly aware (pun intended) that he is lost in many more ways than me. I only want to achieve a physical goal: to retrace our steps and return to a place where Baba and Thamma will definitely be waiting for us, albeit with the most monumental of scoldings, especially when Ma hears what happened.
But Dada, who remains before the factory gate in silence for several more seconds before he begins to walk behind me, is trying to get somewhere he cannot go. Even the childhood house wasn’t really it, although it would have certainly triggered some happy memories. Right then, for the briefest of flashes, a strange image comes to me of his life as a jigsaw that’s always missed one crucial piece at any given time. He’d only had both his parents perhaps right after birth, which doesn’t really count. Then Baba met my mother, and he and Didi just had their Ma. When they had their father again — I mean by their side all the time, as I had always taken for granted with my parents — it was because their mother was gone.
Now that he is finally following me — although never catching up; there’s still twenty metres between us — I begin to jog to see if he’ll respond, hoping to up our pace shortly to an all-out run. But Dada doesn’t pick up on my cue. He continues to walk as if reluctant and distracted and, despite wishing to, I don’t yell out and force the matter. After all, very soon the time would become immaterial, and the direst of consequences unavoidable. Perhaps ‘in for a penny . . .’ is what I’m thinking, although I still want to spare our ailing Thamma too much worry.
We carry on at that pace for thirteen minutes, because I do finally look at my watch once more when we reach the end of the road. My plan has gone unchallenged, and my brother has followed me without protest, although throughout he refused to run. The power cut continues, but we never deviated from this road, and didn’t lose our way again. Oddly for a thoroughfare, we didn’t come across one person during our walk, but only now does the reason become clear.
My theory wasn’t wrong. A factory is usually well set up to receive and dispatch supplies and products, and this road is definitely one of its connections. There probably is, as I’d envisioned, a similar road leading from another gate directly to Howrah station, but this one, the one we’d happened upon, had led us with impeccable logic to the bank of the river. We’re determined to sleep in shifts, so that we can move as soon as the power returns, but also to keep a watch for (other) intruders and animals (snakes, bats, stray cats and dogs, owls, rats, everything really; Dada even says, with no trace of it being a joke, that there might be jackals living in the factory compound). I hate to admit I was the one who let the side down. I know I was awake at least till 12.50, because that was the last time I looked at my watch: Dada had put in the first shift for an hour from half-past eleven. I hadn’t slept a wink even though it had been my turn to rest, partly from an unwillingness to lie in the thick dust — I’d been trying to close my eyes while seated against the wall — but also from an especial horror of rats. I kept recalling pictures from classic stories in the illustrated Moby Books series, of characters imprisoned in dungeons and ship holds, but in particular The Man in the Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Cristo. Hence we’re still talking when Dada returns my watch to me and walks over and dusts off one of the large tables with what seems like an equally filthy curtain. He invites me to join him there: at that height in the middle of the huge workshop we’d have slightly more of an advantage over any fauna that wandered, or slithered, in. Twenty minutes later we’re both asleep, my head somewhere near Dada’s waist, the rest of me curled like a comma.
Between the muddy river bank and the factory, or between looking for another road to the station in the dark and a factory that Dada knew well from his childhood, we’d both chosen quite readily. It would be our shelter just until the power returned. Of course we were afraid that others already slept there, but that, I pointed out, might be useful too. They could tell us the way to the station, and we would immediately set off. In fact, I’d hoped there were people who sheltered in the factory by night, just for this reason.
But both floors of the main building that Dada led us to had seemed empty. Eventually we’d decided on the first floor, because it put a winding wrought-iron stairway between us and any other visitors, and also gave us a better view of the street lights and houses outside.
When I wake up, Mickey Mouse tells me it’s 6.39. We don’t need the power back on any more. I realise it was probably the honking of car and rickshaw horns that had awakened me. There is a tap Dada remembers, set into the wall right beside the main gate, which is how we’re able to get some of the dust off our clothes, arms, faces and hair. A passing thelawala looks at us curiously but immediately tells us that the quickest way to the station is to take the third left turn off this road: there is an electrical shop on that corner, he helpfully adds.
The third left turn seems plausibly wide, and Jayanta Electric Stores is exactly where we expected to see it, but when I notice some ladies preparing for a puja at a small cream-and-red pandal up ahead, I tell Dada that I will double-check the directions, just to be sure. Dada remains outside the pandal, while the woman I speak to confirms that the station is straight ahead. I notice two of her friends supervising the putting up of a large red banner for a blood-donation drive (my assumption about a puja was mistaken). It’s 7.11 a.m.
The woman might have noticed some of the dust that Dada had missed brushing away on my hair and clothes, because she asks me if I’m coming from home. I say no, but my brother and I are meeting our father at the station, and our grandma. She asks if I’d like to take a rickshaw. I politely decline as I turn away: if it’s only five minutes we’ll be fine.
It turns out to be the last kind thing anyone says to us for a long time. And that was far from being the worst of it. You know how people often say ‘. . . and nothing was ever the same again’ about a particular incident and, truth be told, you feel they’re slightly exaggerating? Well, our walk that night, at first merely to kill an hour, then to help Dada locate a piece of his past, and finally in vain to find our way back to Baba,
really did change everything for our family. (Although now I’m aware that my brother would probably object: ‘And what exactly changed for you, Abhi, except perhaps for the better?’)
No, I’ve not left anything out. No one was hurt, abducted or worse. Baba spent those nine hours shuttling between the railway police station, Thamma’s bedside in a hastily arranged station retiring room, our promised rendezvous point on platform 14, and an all-night public phone on a grocerystore counter from which he was trying to keep Ma calm and assure her it was pointless to rush to the station with our sister. Again, not an enviable position to be in, and one for which the two of us were entirely to blame, but nobody’s heart stopped beating. Nine dreadful hours to be sure, and we were absolutely sincere in our vow that nothing like this would ever happen again if only Ma and Baba would drop their subsequent, resulting plan, which more than anything felt like an enormous overreaction.
Because within forty days, just before the new year began, Dada would be dispatched to a boarding school near Ranchi, four hundred kilometres away from us (God knows what favours Baba called in to achieve this in the middle of a school year), and Didi to a girl’s school in Hazaribagh, a further hundred kilometres from her only brother.
Baba and Ma insist to us that it is a collective decision, that we brothers are clearly bad influences on one another, and that they would simply never allow such a misadventure to occur again. The matter must be ‘tackled at its root’. Apparently — and this Dada and I had never realised until it is pointed out to us — this is the worst in a series of joint misdeeds on our part since he and Didi had moved in. This is genuinely news to me: I had truly believed, two years into living together, that we were all getting on rather well, and that Ma was happy looking after us. Now I learn that two boys out on the streets for hours each day, usually on their bikes, ‘spurring one another on to riskier dares’ (Baba’s words) has been a constant strain on Ma’s nerves, and that she has never felt Dada trusted or listened to her as a mother, no matter how hard she’d tried.
Something about my parents has changed and hardened with this one silly incident. In their zeal to discipline us, they’re entirely overlooking the most — no, two most — significant aspects of what happened. The first had struck even a nine-year old who wasn’t at all enjoying being led through endless dark alleys in a totally unknown town — that Dada had suddenly seen an opportunity to briefly draw close to his mother, or at least to a place where she had lived. And second, that two brothers hadn’t, and couldn’t have, deserted one another once they realised they were lost. Staying together through the night until they could safely return had easily been the more loyal, and also sensible and mature, course of action. But my impassioned arguments for the defence fell on unhearing ears.
‘No, what would have been sensible for a boy who hasn’t been in Howrah since he was five was to never leave the station in the first place. Ashim would have done better to run back to platform 14 and ask your father the address first. Then at least he would have known where he was going.’
‘And Baba,’ I asked, turning to him, ‘you would have allowed us to go? Honestly?’
‘I would have promised to take you all another time once I knew how much he wanted this.’
In another hard-to-credit act of parental pragmatism, Didi is initially offered the option of remaining in Calcutta with us. Her peaceful nature has never caused anyone any worry, and she shouldn’t have to disrupt her studies in Class 9, but she chooses to move to Hazaribagh to be closer to her brother. Just as I chose to stay with him even as we ran into one bit of bad luck after another — the power cut, the empty streets. Why was such loyalty so hard for my parents to understand?
And where is Didi going to live in Hazaribagh, or Dada, when he isn’t at boarding school? This is the most unexpected part of the utterly unnecessary ‘solution’ that Ma and Baba patch together (to the problem that never was), given that a large part of the yelling and crying that went on for days and the round-the-world guilt trip that Dada and I were sent on was to do with Thamma’s health and what we had subjected her to — they are going to live with her! Yup, shake your head: Didi is going to live with our grandmother full-time and finish school in Hazaribagh, while Dada will be a boarder a three-hour drive away in Namkum, near Ranchi. Because that’s how important it is to separate the two of us immediately, for our own wellbeing, for my mother’s sake, and even for my grandmother’s loneliness apparently (at one point we’re told).
During the night itself, I had decided that after having screamed at him, I wouldn’t speak to my brother for four days, as a protest against what he had put us through. By midnight, sitting there on the factory floor, while he took his turn watching the door and the windows, I was upset enough to inwardly raise the period of sanctions to a week. As things turned out, we were never more united than in the five weeks before they separated us, on the 29th of December. Not once did I feel that I should pin all the blame on Dada as I’d originally planned to; insist and emphasise that every part of leaving the station had been his idea, for his reasons, and that my fault lay only in not decrying the stupidity of the plan from the outset and simply refusing to go along. OK, I wasn’t a parent yet, and was only nine at the time, and as a thirty-seven-year-old father today I certainly wouldn’t dismiss my parents’ anguish quite so airily, but all I could think at the time was: grown-ups must be crazy! There is no call for anything so drastic. It was just a hasty idea that ran into bad weather. Nobody was out to hurt anyone or cause worry or be deliberately, maliciously naughty. In fact, we were both pursuing a noble objective, because it was obvious how much Dada was missing his mother. I said all this and much more to my parents over and over in different ways — about how it proved that our family was actually working in the sense of two brothers staying loyal to one another — right up until the day of Dada and Didi’s departure: in front of them, when I was alone with Ma, at the dinner table, even on my tenth birthday in early December as we were all together absurdly pretending to celebrate at Kwality restaurant. That was what I asked for as my present: please cancel your plan. It’s so unnecessary, such a massive misreading of what we intended. Why not send me to boarding school as well as him? Why not send me instead of him, if the objective is merely to separate us? Why send anyone at all? Why didn’t Ma ever tell us how much our being on the streets worried her? How can something be your last chance when you didn’t even know you were running out of chances?
The only grown-up to emerge out of this with any credit was our sixty-four-year-old Thamma, who at least volunteered to be part of a solution once it was obvious my parents had closed their minds. And when I called that witness to the stand at probably fifteen different dinnertimes, she never once claimed that our undeniably reckless actions that night had pushed her to the brink of dying. Not even close. So, Baba and Ma, it isn’t really about her, is it? No further questions, Your Honour.
The trouble with this particular case was that Your Honours were also the prosecution and the governing regime, which utterly lacked the necessary separation between executive and judiciary.
Anyhow, a failure though my campaign was, that is how I remembered it, at least until the second half of this year. Which was when I finally learnt, well over a quarter-century later, that despite everything he’d seen and heard, all my pleas and outrage and attempts to show solidarity with my much loved siblings, my older brother had kind of held me responsible all these years for their permanent banishment from their father’s home.