From The Mad Treasurer's Grandson's Spectacles
A Novel, by Anjana Basu
It was a small insertion in The Statesman. They gave it an inch on the bottom right-hand corner of the middle righthand page. "Freedom Fighter's Spectacles Broken": that was the headline. Underneath it said: Yesterday, Padma Bhushan Moitra's spectacles, housed in the Moitra Museum in Amnaguri, North Bengal, were damaged through sheer carelessness on the part of a sweeper. Padma Bhushan Moitra was a noted freedom fighter, as well as Minister of Culture under the Gandhi Government.
Spectacles. That was one of the first things they told me about Padma Bhushan Moitra. How he'd stand there like a monolith, letting the light glint on his spectacles like a miniature interrogator's spotlight. They were thick round lenses rimmed in gold or silver wire, depending on whether he wanted to be discreet or ostentatious. I believe he had them made by Lawrence & Mayo.
I am looking at him now the way you would look through a pair of spectacles, but the way a short- sighted person looks at things, holding them close to her nose to catch the details. I am not a historian, by the way, so my interest has no basis in scholarly research. Nor am I even a relative. But I was once almost a relative. I ran around with Padma Bhushan Moitra's grandson for eight years. At the end of that time the relationship fell apart, and it fell apart because Padma Bhushan Moitra cast such a long shadow. I saw the spectacles once on a rare trip to North Bengal. Shubho was still talking to me in those days. He took me reverently to the museum and almost made me cover my head before I crossed the threshold - after all; I was the family daughter-in-law who was visiting my revered elder's place of pilgrimage. We were met by the small dusty curator who quivered with awe when he saw Shubho.
He conveyed us to an equally dusty, dirty glass case.
The glass was so furred with dirt that you could barely see the outline of something inside. There was a board next to it which probably said something about the history of the spectacles, but I had no time to read it. Shubho had me by the arm and was demanding a flat on-the-floor obeisance to the spectacles. For a moment, I couldn't take in what he was saying. When I did, I found myself stretched flat-out on the dusty floor. The habit of obedience dies hard in a woman, even in a so-called Anglicised woman.
I got up, shook the dust from my sari and bit down on my feelings. "You believe in ancestor worship," I said to Shubho, "the way the Chinese did." He didn't understand what I was saying, but he had read about such things in those books that he bought so compulsively, so he laughed. "You say such things, yaar...how about a cuddle?" And he engulfed me in front of the scandalised curator. "That's bad manners," I told him, after I had extricated myself into the sunlight. "How could you do that?"
"My grandfather won't mind," he said. "In fact, he'd probably enjoy it." I had a momentary vision of eyes behind those spectacles, peering out through the fog of dirt. Beady, hot eyes, exactly like Shubho's. "It was my grandfather's ambition," he was saying, "to sleep with three women at once. So he went to Geneva for this operation...you know, glands, yaar...but somehow it bumbooed him. He died."
I didn't pay attention to what he said then, though later it was to echo in my mind. I was too hot and shaken and embarrassed - so embarrassed that I didn't even dare look at the curator. What I needed at that moment was to prove that I was respectable, a worthy almost-granddaughter-
in-law to the man in whose honour the museum had been built.
Disillusionment about that worthiness was to come later, but then I just shook Shubho off and went back to read what was written on the board beside the spectacles. There was the date of a birth and the date of a death. There was also a long list of meritorious public works, of awards and the names of children and grandchildren. "He wore those very glasses when he came here to open this museum," the curator quavered at me. He had inaugurated the museum wearing those spectacles. Of course, the curator was wrong - the museum had been inaugurated after Padma Bhushan Moitra's death, but I didn't know that then.
I left the Museum and Amnaguri that afternoon. Shubho drove to Badogra and escorted me possessively onto the flight. The airhostess smiled at him with a shade more warmth than was required, silly bitch. In those days he was short and square, a cross between a teddy bear and a brick wall. He still had all his teeth and he looked like a German navvy with Roger Moore's forehead. People liked him when they saw him, women smiled at him. Take him, I said to her, silently in my head, daring her to, wondering whether I would mind if she did. I did mind when it had happened in the past. Possibly it was Shubho's ambition as well to sleep with three women at once and one of these days he was going to achieve it, with or without glands. The only thing I knew for certain was that he expected me to be one of those three women. If you could call that a commitment to a relationship.
Mrinalini would probably have died for a commitment like that; perhaps once I might have thought it meant something too. Instead, I fastened my seatbelt, sank back into my seat and, when the plane took off, watched Shubho become a small speck in the glass of the porthole. Until the image ran with water droplets and, for no reason at all, I was reminded of the lenses in the dirty glass case. I hadn't heard about the glands and the three-woman thing before. Perhaps Shubho wasn't serious about it - perhaps it was just excitement caused by the fact that he was about to do something forbidden like humiliate me in front of the curator. His behavior certainly didn't improve our rela-
tionship, and it made me feel soiled.
I made up my mind that I would ask Shanto about what Shubho told me the moment I got home, because Shanto never said things for effect. And I did, that evening, half an hour after I arrived. Even over a bad line I could hear Shanto was shocked. "My brother told you that?"
"Why? Wasn't I supposed to know?"
"Yes, but well, not till much later..."
"Why the secrecy?" I asked, my voice reduced to a tired croak the day beginning to catch up with me.
"He was afraid you wouldn't marry him.... Look, you've accepted most things about our family. You know what we're like... Hello, hello, are you there?"
"Yes," I said, "I'm still here."
"You sound like you're coming down with a cold or something. Why don't you go to bed with a nice hot cup of soup? My brother's coming down in a few days.... We can talk things over.... I'll call you tomorrow...."
At the climax of his life, at 70, Padma Bhushan Moitra was found dead in his bed as the result of the combined attentions of three whores and a host of goat-gland-
bearing Swiss doctors. The servant, tiptoeing blindfold in with bed tea at seven and finding no relieving hand to lighten the tray, unveiled his eyes, discovered the corpse and alerted the police. A fleet of severe black cars flashed their red-sirened way to the chalet and erupted into official blue-coated men. The Chief of Police was confronted by the butler wringing his hands. "Sir, sir, such an unfortunate..."
The Chief shrugged himself out of his fur-lined coat. "Where's the body?"
"This way, sir. I assure you we haven't touched a thing.... Oh dear, so unfortunate...." The butler's voice trailed away as he opened the door.
The first thing the Chief noticed was the smell - an almost tangible stale greasiness, oozing coldly on the air. "Open those windows!" he snapped. The butler scuttled toward the windows, carefully averting his eyes from the bed. Cold sunlight sliced into the room and glinted on a pair of gold-framed spectacles. A cuckoo clock hiccuped eight with an ironical whir. It was a wide, well-gilt room carpeted in simulated mink. The rumpled bed was the big-
gest thing in it. On the marble bedside table bristled a black millipede. "See what that is," the Chief ordered his subordinates. "Be careful."
There was a tense pause. Then, "It's eyelashes, sir."
"Yes, sir. You know, those false ones women use."
The body was half out of the bed, lolling face downwards. They straightened it carefully. The pillows were smeared with vaseline. The Police Chief found the half-empty jar under the bed. While the forensic experts carried out their examination, he went into the adjoining bathroom and discovered dollops of pulped lipstick-smeared tissue.
No one could exactly state the time of death. The experts surmised that it was between midnight and two-thirty. To them it was a matter of grave embarrassment, given the fact that he was, after all, an Indian Minister of State, no matter how dubious or how internationally unimportant.
"It will be very difficult explaining this to the press," said the Chief.
"But is there a need to explain?" said his colleague. "He is old, he died of heart failure."
"The Indian Government will be bound to ask questions. This is not an easy matter. The forensic department has assembled four different types of hair..."
"A blonde, brunette and a redhead?"
"Swiss doctors are matters to be ashamed of, comrade. It is a well-known fact that before this happened he had implants. I am told it was in all the Indian papers."
"Was it the goat or the monkey?"
"It obviously worked." The Police Chief sighed and perambulated once around the bedroom, his hobnails scuffing the mink. "It is very serious. The body bears evidence of at least three sets of teeth, traces of scarlet nail polish."
"Three women! He was ambitious!"
"And he was also a Minister of State."
"Come on, mon ami, cheer up. We must issue a state-
ment for the papers. I will help you write it."
India mourns the passing of Padma Bhushan Moitra. The 70-year-old Minister of State for Culture passed away peacefully in his Swiss hideaway yesterday. Doctors said the cause was a sudden heart attack. Padma Bhushan's family was informed. In Amnaguri, his eldest son glared at the telegram and wondered what to do about it. "Someone's got to go to Switzerland, I suppose."
"Why bother?" asked his wife. "Tell them to send you the ashes in a copper urn and have a public scattering ceremony by the dam. It'll be good for your elections." She had other things to do. Straight after the telegram she went into the Austrian woman's room and unlocked a brass-bound chest. From its camphor interior she dragged out a bulky coat, releasing a flight of moths from the folds of the Russian leopard. They flapped dementedly around the room like bad memories and finally roosted in the cracks of the shutters. The coat was almost bald. "Thank goodness he didn't give it to one of his women," she sighed.
His second son received the news at the factory and went running to tell his wife. "Damn, I suppose they'll have taken everything out of Amal's wife's cupboard by the time we get there."
"But you did remove the emeralds when she left, didn't you?" he asked her worriedly. "Because if you didn't, Hari's bound to give them to his wife."
The third son took himself quietly down to the country liquor shop and was not heard of for the day.
As I far as I was concerned, Padma Bhushan's porn-
ographic death wasn't how the whole thing began for me, even though it might have been how the whole thing began for Shubho, since his world fell apart when his grandfather died. He came back from Amnaguri to boast about his grandfather's death as if it were some great achievement, while I was looking for an explanation or consolation for being associated with a family like that. Shubho told it like the start of a Mickey Spillane or a James Hadley Chase - all we needed was for a gun-toting blonde to walk in and rake the room with flashes of machine-gun fire and leave dead cops all over the place. The way they related the death to me was deliberately obscene - let's show poor little Nandini exactly what kind of family she's getting herself in to. If I had been older and wiser I would probably have seen it as a cry for help - Shubho wanted attention from me and decided the best way to get it was to scandalise me. But he never realised that my story with him didn't begin with a death in Geneva. Nor did it begin as a kind of negotiation - though for members of the Moitra family life itself was a negotiation and there was no deal that could not be won and no person who could not be bought over. My story with Shubho began with the exit of a girl called Mrinalini from his life.
One fine day - why do writers always use that one fine day business? I don't know whether the day was fine or not - Mrinalini stormed into Shanto and Shubho's house in a flurry of red sari and temper. She was in her usual state of untidiness, her petticoat sticking out a palmsbreadth below her sari, with cheap plastic slippers flopping underneath. Today, they were red plastic to match. "Where is he?" she stormed as soon as she cleared the door.
"Who?" Shanto asked, knowing perfectly well.
"Shubho!" She was so angry, she was panting and her corals danced in a pattern of coils on her breast.
"Sit down, sit down," he said patting a chair. When-
ever Shanto saw her he wondered what his brother saw in her. She was so dark and fussy. Bits and pieces of her escaped all over the place, her hair straying out of its bun, her petticoat out of the sari, and she was forever trying to herd those bits and pieces back into place and never quite succeeding.
"I waited for him an hour and a half," she fumed, rear-
ranging herself unsuccessfully.
"Where is he?"
Since the age of five, Shubho had thought he was a Casanova. Well, no, five might be a bit of an exag-
geration. He was seduced by the maid at thirteen, that I know for sure, since according to Shanto, they all were. Of course, if you are Padma Bhushan Moitra's grandson, I suppose it was inevitable.
Shanto and Shubho grew up with their eyes glued to keyholes, and Shubho was always snuffing around Grandpa's heels. When they were four and five, they would sit on the edge of the courtyard and watch the pretty starlet whores leaving grandfather's room in the morning. They called them the devika ranis, after an actress who was all the rage for her beauty and scandalous love life. Because Shubho had a year's advantage, he liked to act more knowing. "Look, look, see, that one's more swollen here," he would say, fumbling at his chest. Or, "That one's nose is like Sati Auntie's dog's. Grandpa can't have liked her."
Shanto told me that he consoled himself with the fact that their mother never liked Shubho. She always preferred him. Shanto was the one who got to rub oil into her legs when she sunned herself on the terrace in her bikini. Shubho, on the other hand, brought her flowers from the roadside and got slapped because the mud stained her dress. He brought her water in a glass, and some of it always slopped over onto her hand.
"Where is he," Mrinalini asked Shanto again. She was obviously getting fed up by his glassy-eyed silence.
"Have some tea," he said and got up to make it for her.
Shanto never said that he had loved his mother. It wasn't possible after what she did to them. All he said was that she loved him better, which probably made him more balanced in his attitude towards women. Shubho always ill-treated them and expected them to keep on loving him, despite it. In a way, he was getting back at them for all his mother's slaps.
Shanto gave Mrinalini her tea with a squeeze of lemon in it, and he served it in the chipped Satsuma cups that he found in the Thieves' Market. The tea and Satsuma combin-
ation obviously did something for her morale because she relaxed into the chair. "I wouldn't be so angry," she confessed, "if I hadn't bunked two lectures. I can't afford to keep bunking lectures for your brother."
"Who asked you to?" Shanto said.
A stray hair dropped into her cup. She fished it out with a finger. Looking at her, Shanto found it hard to believe that she and Shubho were an item. Everyone cooed indul-
gently about them in Presidency. Shubho's friends told Shanto how the two held hands in deserted classrooms or were discovered clinched on the dusty library floor. Someone compared them once to bullock-cart wheels; two round forms rolling side by side. Shanto didn't think they belonged together. He thought she was just part of Shubho's Casanova image. De Sade was Shubho's role model, of course, I knew that now without Shanto having to tell me. In his head Shubho was the man who got all the women and made them run. He could take away a worker's daughter if he wanted without raising a storm in the tea estate. Padma Bhushan carried on the same way till the time of his death. Not that Shubho had the grandfather's style. All he had was the chip their mother had left him with and the bad habits he had learned from their father. At sixteen Shanto caught him mixing cocktails of rum and vodka to see how they tasted. "It's the alcoholic's blood," he told Shanto proudly and forced some down his throat. They were both very sick that night and the nest day their House Master sent them down for being drunk.
Shanto had a thousand and one stories like those about his brother, and he was sure Mrinalini didn't know half of them - he did his best to make sure that I was enlightened too. Mrinalini was the sort who'd get drunk on a glass of orange squash if you let her. The first time they all went out together Shubho brought her a glass of orange juice and told her there was gin in it. They'd gone to this res-
taurant with a view of the river, it had plate glass win-
dows lined with high red-leather stools that were jammed together. It was very popular with courting couples in those days. You could sit and kitchy-coo for hours over two cups of coffee or a Limca. Anyway, Mrinalini squealed so loud when she heard about the gin in the orange juice that all the courting couples unglued their heads and turned to look at them. Then, after she'd taken a few sips, she started to teeter on the stool until it tilted. Shubho was a little slow to catch her, so she crashed on the floor and burst into tears in a welter of orange juice. At that point, the male member of one of the courting couples stalked over to them and said angrily, "You don't behave like that in here. This is a decent place." Mrinalini cried harder at that. Shanto offered her his hand-
kerchief, but she didn't seem to see it.
After a while Shubho picked her up and dusted her down. "You wait here," he said to his brother. "I'll put her on a cab home."
Shanto waited until he couldn't look another Limca in the face. Then he paid the bill and went home. Shubho stag-
gered in somewhere around midnight. "Don't make a big deal of it," he told Shanto irritably when he saw him glaring. "I had to see her home, didn't I? And soothe her up a bit."
"You needn't have asked me to wait. And why on earth did you have to give her that gin?"
Shubho paused in the midst of pulling his singlet over his head. "Who said there was any gin in it? I gave her straight orange squash. If she's such an idiot that she gets drunk on orange squash..."
Mrinalini got out of her chair. "I'm going to put the cup in the kitchen," she announced. "Shall I take yours?" And she did without waiting for an answer. After a while Shanto heard noises from his brother's room and went to investigate. Mrinalini was going through his drawers. She pulled out a pair of pajamas streaked with grey and made a face at them.
"You'd better put them back," Shanto warned her. "Shubho hates people prying into his things."
"These need washing," she said. "I'm going to take them to the washerman's." She rolled an eye over him. "Do you have something that needs washing too? Give it to me."
Her hair cascaded over her eye and she pushed it back im-
patiently. The other problem with Mrinalini was that she was always trying to take care of the two brothers, pushing her way into places where she was not always welcome. When their father was in town, she would sit at his feet, rubbing oil into them for hours on end "What on earth does that girl want?" he asked once after she'd spent the day ordering the servant around the house. "If you're going to marry her, Shubho, I'd advise you not to. She's not our class." What their class was, was debatable. Mrinalini, if untidy, was at least decent. As far as Shanto could tell, she didn't have a history of alcohol and devika ranis. But she didn't have enough money either, she wore plastic slippers and Shanto didn't like the possessive gleam in her eye, as if she were already a daughter-in-law of the Moitra family.
"I don't need anything, thanks," Shanto replied. "My brother is the dirty member of the family. Perhaps he'll be glad if you keep him clean."
She flopped onto her knees and pulled out a few more pieces of dirty underwear. Everything Shubho wore next to his skin was a uniform shade of grey. As she shook out a pair of underpants, Shanto saw rusty stains caked on them. He thought they were blood at first, then something about the pattern caught his eye: the unmistakable print of a lower lip.
Mrinalini was looking at him with an expression that he thought was embarrassment. "Don't worry," Shanto smiled, trying to put some warmth into it. "I won't tell anyone."
The tears welled up in her eyes and bled down her cheeks. She dropped the pants, buried her face in her hands and rocked back and forth. Like everything else about her, she was an untidy crier.
"What's the matter?" Shanto asked. "Look, I won't tell anyone...."
She mumbled something into the palms of her hands. Shanto had to bend forward to catch it. "How could he do this to me?"
Shanto heard a scuffling in the other room and dashed off to investigate. Between rooms he reached an inevitable conclusion. The lipstick stains were not Mrinalini's. he found Shubho standing in the drawing room looking dis- tinctly rumpled. He opened his mouth to say something, but Shanto rushed in. "Where on earth have you been? You were supposed to meet Mrinalini at the college steps. She's in your room."
"What did you let her in there for?" Shubho said angrily.
"Where were you anyway?"
"That's none of your business."
"Well Mrinalini's in there crying her eyes out, so you'd better make your alibi a good one. And who's been leaving lipstick stains on your underpants?"
Shanto had his hand on the door handle when he said that. Very slowly, Shubho turned to look at him. "Who told you that? Have you been spying again?" His eyes must have been blazing at a thousand watts.
Shanto began to back away. "Mrinalini was taking a couple of your things to the dhobi's. She's the one who found it..." Shubho cursed and swung out of the room.
Shanto heard a high babble of voices in the next room and decided he was best out of the place. He took a tram to visit a friend in Gariahat. When he came back Mrinalini was gone and Shubho was sprawled on his bed in his shabby navy dressing gown. His grin stretched from ear to ear when he saw Shanto. "I sent three of your vests to the dhobi with Mrinalini," he said. The bed was a mess of rumpled sheets and the room stank.
"I don't know how you get away with it," Shanto said.
"It's the philandering blood."
"You mind telling me exactly where you were this afternoon?"
"Amit and I went for a stroll by the river. He had some good hash. It didn't seem worthwhile rushing back. In any case, I got my screw for the day."
"How about the lipstick stains."
Shubho shrugged. "I told you, she and I have a no-strings relationship."
"You may think so, but does she?"
"She wants to marry me. Don't forget that."
"I'm not forgetting anything. But, considering you've been going around with her for almost six years, isn't it time you came to some conclusion?"
Shanto was itching to get out of the room. On summer days you could smell Shubho, rank and ripe in a good south wind. It got so bad, Shanto had to stay downwind of him, otherwise his asthma played up. He wasn't like that in Amnaguri, only in Calcutta when the two of them were together. Shanto thought it had something to do with the German in them, which made him extra careful when it came to his personal hygiene. Shubho thought it was just macho.
"You know Baba doesn't approve," Shubho said finally.
"But you can't just go around with a girl for six years and then drop her. She expects you to marry her. Why is she taking care of the washing otherwise?"
Shubho heaved himself over so that his dressing gown gaped and his stomach heaved and billowed like a pregnant whale. "I'll take care of that, little brother. I'll take care of that."
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)