Prose | Uttaran Das Gupta | Part 1/2

Photo : LeeLa

Lunch at Mocambo*

Rohini and I met for lunch at Mocambo. I know it has become a sort of cliché: characters of a book or film meeting at this restaurant, thanks to the rediscovered enthusiasm of Bollywood for Calcutta. But I bet you that the writers and directors of these films won’t be able to tell you why Mocambo is the perfect place for a rendezvous. It is because Mocambo has the best acoustics of all the restaurants in Calcutta. I don’t know how or why — perhaps it’s the leathered-upholstered chairs, the high ceilings of the old colonial building, the thick walls or the deep carpets — but unless one is really loud, sound does not travel from one table to another in Mocambo. So, one can converse uninhibited, without the fear of disturbing one’s neighbours or overhearing conversations about the lives of others. And the best table in the house is the small one looking out on Free School Street. It has space only for two chairs, green and comfortable. I found Rohini waiting for me, sipping a melancholic whiskey sour and contemplating the rain, in one of the chairs.
“Where did you park?” She kissed me on both cheeks, her small palms resting on my wet shoulders.
“Near Loreto. You?”
­“Little Russel Street. Worst time of the day to find parking on Park Street. Everyone is out for lunch. If you come a little later, you might have to park on Theatre Road or Camac Street.”
“The rain always makes it worse.”
“What would you like to have?”
I ordered a whiskey sour and hors d’ouevre. Our conversation lingered briefly on the difficulty of finding parking in the city and the obnoxious weather before lapsing into silence.
“So this is it,” said Rohini at length. “This is where it all ends. When they write the history of our generation, they will say it ended on the intolerable summer morning when a police inspector found the body of Manish Guha.”
Having made this grandiose statement, Rohini realised how futile it was, how full of bathos, and tried to dissipate the feeling by attempting to impale a piece a ham on a fork.
The ham broke; Rohini threw down the fork.
“Do you write anymore?”
“Not really, do you?”
She laughed, ironically. “I’m a failed writer, sweetheart. All editors are failed writers. Don’t you know?”
Rohini is a junior editor at Maya — an independent publisher of feminist literature. Sangeetha Kumar is one of the directors of Maya. I don’t know how much Rohini gets paid but I guess it can’t be enough to cover all the lunches at Mocambo and Peter Cat, and the series of parties that punctuate her life.
“What happened to your novel?”
I shrugged.
“Tell me,” she insisted. “I remember you wanted to write a grand historical.”
“So what happened? You started writing it, didn’t you?”
“I did; and I did manage to write a few chapters.”
“Then I ran out of steam. Anyway, why should I even presume I can write a novel?”
“Why not?”
It took me a little time before I could answer. “It takes a lot of hard work, discipline and conviction to write a novel. But that’s what our generation lacks the most, isn’t it? Conviction. That’s how they brand us: entitled 20-somethings who don’t know what they want.”
Rohini downed her drink. “No, it’s not conviction we lack. It’s courage. And of the two people of our generation who had courage, one is dead, and the other…”
We had forgotten all about lunch. I had no appetite anyway; Rohini was too drunk.
“How did it all come to this?” she said. “It was only supposed to be a bit of fun: Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. It was only supposed to be poetry. When did it become so much more? When did it all begin?”
“I think it all began with you winning The Derozio Project.”

It was Manish who told us about the result of The Derozio Project. We were all at a Christmas party at Prabuddha’s house. Manish was still working for The Nation, and on Christmas Eve, he arrived late with the news. But before that Sankalita and I shared a joint and planned to go to St Paul’s Cathedral for the midnight mass.
I was a little hesitant about accepting Prabuddha’s invitation to the party because I feared I would meet Rohini there. But he was relentless: he first made the party a Facebook event, which I could have easily ignored, and then called me up insisting on my attendance.
Prabuddha’s house — a 19th century, Baroque palace — was at the end of Babu Muktaram Street, a narrow lane turning left from Mahatma Gandhi Road. It was inconceivable that the sprawling building, with the large garden in front and the empty stable for horses behind it, could be nestled in that lane. But there it was, darkened by its own shadow, like a prehistoric monster, waiting for prey, with a millennial, insatiable hunger.
The first thing that caught my eye as I entered Prabuddha’s house was a large palanquin below the broad, marble staircase. I had seen palanquins before only in films and book illustrations, but never a real one. I stared at it like one stares at the bones of a dinosaur in a museum. It was unlike anything I had seen before. The compartment for travellers was made of thick, brown wood, and upholstered in leather. The wood had ornamental carvings; the leather was torn and shabby. It also had four brass rings at four corners, for inserting wooden poles which the bearers would carry on their shoulders.
“That belonged to one of my ancestors,” said Prabuddha, coming down the stairs. “Prakash Chandra Mahalanobis: Does the name ring a bell?”
It did: with the faint chime of the Bengali Renaissance but without the peal or echo of memory that would provide me with any confidence to speak on the subject.
“He was a friend of Keshav Chandra Sen, a social reformer, and an advocate of widow remarriage. He is the one who brought fame to the family, and the wealth. Do you know how?”
I had no clue.
“By selling salt. In the early 19th century, ships that sailed from Calcutta to Britain were full of the colonial loot, but when the same ships returned, they would be empty. Now, an empty ship on the high seas is a dangerous proposition. So the sailors would fill up the hold with salt. This useless cargo would then be dumped on the banks of Hoogly when the ships docked there. Prakash Chandra — along with a few others — got a licence to collect the salt and sell it in Indian markets. It was a sort of monopoly, a cartel, and they made millions.”
Prabuddha took me to see the portrait of his illustrious ancestor.
There was nothing remarkable about it. Prakash Chandra was a tall man but there was no grace to him. At least, the picture didn’t betray any. In the painting (oil-on-canvas, in the colonial style), he sat on a high-back chair, draped in a Kashmiri shawl, a little stooped, staring at the painter with squinted eyes. The faded colours and a permanent film of dust marked the age of the portrait.
“Do you know what else he did?” asked Prabuddha.
“He supplied indentured labourers to the Carribean.”
I stared at him, not quite understanding.
“You know what indentured labourers are, right? Poor Indian farmers — mostly sharecroppers — whose lands were acquired for opium cultivation, transported in hordes to the Caribbean; to work on plantations from which African slaves had been emancipated in 1833.”
Prabuddha lit a cigarette.
“Don’t imagine for a moment that the anti-slavery movement had anything to do with the humanitarian instincts of the British, though. All they wanted to do was break the backbone of the French economy that depended so much on slave labour. Having succeeded in that, they still needed cheap labour for their own plantations, and this they got from India. Anyway, it was a windfall for my family.”
Prabuddha slapped me on the back. “That’s enough Mahalabonis family history for one night. Let’s go and get a drink now.”
He led me to the party in the nautch room. It was enormous, intimidating. It was impossible to take in all the dimensions at once: they were Kafkaesque in their enormity. What struck me as soon as I entered the room was the gigantic Belgian mirror, nearly as high as the ceiling, occupying an entire wall. Everything in the room was clearly reflected in the mirror, which was remarkably clear despite its obvious age. What was even more remarkable was the light of the crystal chandelier on the glass.
I looked up to take in the magnificence and was surprised to observe that unlike modern chandeliers, which have electric bulbs, this one still had candles. Large ones, burning boldly. The chandelier was swaying slowly in the cold wind coming in from the balcony.

“Prabuddha’s house always reminded me of Jalsaghar,” said Rohini, sipping from another glass of whiskey sour. “The broad marble staircase, the oil-on-canvas portraits and the nautch room… It could have been the setting of Ray’s only tragedy.”
“The only tragedy?”
“Yes, the only tragedy — not just of a man but also of an era coming to an end.”
I demurred. “Shatranj ke Khiladi is also about the end of an era.”
“Yes, but it is more comic than tragic, don’t you think? But Jalsaghar is wholly tragic, and the tragedy is cumulative, reaching a crescendo in the climax.”
I thought about it. “Bishwambar Rai is somewhat like Lear, his retinue of knights lessening over time, his wealth depleting, his property diminishing, and darkness gathering around his mansion.”
“But there was never any darkness at the Mahalabonis mansion,” said Rohini. “Do you remember the large crystal chandelier? Prabuddha’s family was so ostentatious that they wouldn’t put electric bulbs in it but expensive candles, casting a rich glow around the endless nautch room.”
Rohini was right: as far as I could remember, everything in the nautch room was suffused with a warm, golden glow from the candles of the chandelier, swinging slowly, defying gravity, and all the faces of the people I know, smiling, illumined by the healthy, yellow light.
“Do you know the story of Ray and his team scouting for a house that would be Bishwambar Rai’s mansion in the film?”
Ray’s team scouted old zamindar houses in both Bengals for months before settling on one mansion in Nimtita. When Ray told Tarashankar about the find, the author revealed he had set the character of Bishwambar Rai on Upendra Narayan Chowdhury, one of the men in the Nimtita house and the person who built the music room.
“But Ray found the dimensions of the original jalsaghar insufficient. So, he got Bansi Chandra Gupta to create a larger one at the sets.”
The waiter took our orders for lunch: Rohini asked for Yorkshire pork chops, I wanted a Chateaubriand steak with pepper sauce. We also ordered cream of tomato soup and bread rolls.
“Do you remember the large mirror in the nautch room of Prabuddha’s hosue?” said Rohini.
“Yes, of course.”
“It has always intrigued me, you know.”
“Have you ever observed it closely? Where was it — the mirror?”
“It was on one of the walls.”
“Yes, but which wall? Do you remember?”
I did not. “The wall behind the space where the artistes performed,” said Rohini. “What do you think was the purpose of the mirror?”
I thought I knew the answer to this. “To make the room look bigger.”
Rohini shook her head in disagreement. “Why would they put a mirror on the wall to make the room look bigger?”
My companion explained: “As the mirror was behind the performing space, it is obvious that its only purpose was to reflect the audience.”
I did not understand. “Why would the audience want to see itself?”
“Of course they would, silly. At the jalsas, people came dressed to the nines. They were not just the patrons of the performers but themselves performing the role of connoisseurs. The mirror was placed strategically so that they could observe themselves and their peers appreciating the performance.”
By the time she finished, I was laughing.
“What happened?”
“Music and dance were not the only things people appreciated on the mirror.”

Sankalita was planning a trip to St Paul’s Cathedral for the midnight mass but she was finding it difficult to recruit companions for the trip.
When she saw me, she held my hand and said: “Will you come with me?”
“Of course,” I replied, taken aback that I should be selected for this adventure.
“Prabuddha’s being a jerk and refusing to take me to the mass,” she said, answering the question I had not asked. “I’ve heard it’s wonderful. Have you seen it?”
“No, I am afraid not.”
“Wonderful! It will be an adventure for both of us.”
Then, turning towards Prabuddha, she said in a louder voice: “Manish would never have refused anything I asked him.”
Prabuddha was unperturbed by this threat, or mock-threat. Interrupting a passionate conversation he was having with a few of the other guests, he smiled at Sankalita like an indulgent father smiling at a child asking for the moon.
Disappointed, Sankalita turned to me and said: “You want to smoke a joint?”
We went out on the balcony, in the cold. The joint Sankalita offered me was hashish rolled up in thick paper on which one could observe words written in a neat handwriting.
“Rough drafts of my poetry,” she explained. “I prefer using the paper than throwing it away.”
We smoked in silence for a bit. The winter that year was colder than usual — the temperature had reached a record low, and weather officials predicted colder days ahead. The smoke I inhaled warmed up my alimentary canal, protecting me against the chill, more effectively than the leather jacket I wore.
“So where is Manish?” I said.
“Working. He is always working — all through the week, even on weekends.”
“The life of a journalist.”
“The life of a poor man, something you and I will never know.”
The words stung me. “Wasn’t he planning to quit?” My voice had turned hoarse. “I thought he was.”
Sankalita made a clicking noise with her tongue. “Oh no, he is not quitting. He says he needs the money to buy a flat for his aunt and uncle.”
I could hardly believe it. “He wants to buy a flat? Where will he get the money? How much does he earn?”
“I don’t know.” Sankalita sounded exasperated. “He tells me that he has made some enquiries at the bank and they have told him that he can take a loan after he has worked for a year. But I don’t know if he will last a year.”
“Why not?”
“Have you seen him recently? He looks like a scarecrow. He has grown thin, his shoulders are gaunt, he has no time to cut his hair. The punishing schedule he has imposed on himself is taking its toll.”
“What schedule?”
“He wakes up at the crack of dawn and starts writing, and he continues till going out to work at 11am. He doesn’t return home till midnight, when overcome with fatigue, he falls asleep. And this schedule he follows six days a week. He has lost his appetite. Prabuddha and I met him for dinner last Saturday. I could tell that he was hungry but he didn’t eat much — just gobbled down a few mouthfuls and that was it.”
I held the butt of the joint between my fingers and took one last drag. “Is he coming tonight?”
“He said he would meet us at St Paul’s around midnight.”
Sankalita turned to return to the room, gasped as if she had seen a ghost and then, started to laugh.
“What happened?” I asked, startled.
“The mirror — it always gives me a fright.” She was holding on to my arm.
Sankalita and I, and everyone else in the room, were reflected by the large mirror. But the reflections were a little fuzzy because of the smoke from all the cigarettes and joints. It was like looking into an aquarium, or a parallel universe, where we could see ourselves, but as different people.
My companion was still laughing quietly.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Have you ever seen yourself having sex?”
I didn’t know how to answer the question. “How?”
“Make a video, or watch yourself in a mirror.” Her hands gently guided my shoulder. “Prabuddha loves to see me ride him. I love to see him, us, giving each other head. Makes me come in a jiffy.”
Unaccustomed to such confidences, I felt my ears turning hot.

*An extract from Uttaran Das Gupta's Novel 'Hungry', or 'In This Inclement Clime of Human Life', first published in TSC.

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