As I said, the attack made a pretty drastic impression on my life. I nearly lost two significant people, Shivaji, who I’d known all my life, and Homi, who I was yet to know. In fact, it would’ve been surprising had 26/11 occurred without knocking me off my feet. You see, in the past, major events in the city’s history had coincided with revelations about my life. If I believed in fate, in teleology (a clunky word that handsome professor Gaurav Tripathi uttered with such attractive fluency), I would have believed in the romantic idea that my fate was intertwined with that of Bombay’s.
While discussing Wittgenstein’s theory that many philosophical problems could be pinned down to the way we used language, Tripathi would bring up the idea of luck. “I would never wish you good luck,” he’d say, smoking sexily in Delhi’s winter fog. “I might say, for example, ‘I hope you ace your test’, but I’ll never say ‘best of luck’. Because there’s no such thing. You can see how casual usage of the term suggests there is something like luck or destiny, a guiding hand that determines the course of life.” Reading philosophy threw that juju out the window. There was no fate, only chance.
Yet, thinking about the historic coincidences produced a feeling of meaning and strangeness. From the beginning, I’d felt untethered from the world, like a balloon adrift. The sense was brought about by the fact that I resembled no one in my family, physically or in character. Shivaji and Mini are short, the colour of malt and round-cheeked like a lot of Bengalis. Shivaji is chubby all over. Mini has cartoonish curves, big breasts, a narrow waist, a generous ass. I’m tallish, absurdly fair with a lanky, boyish body. No breasts or hips, bony shoulders, hair as straight as my pin-like frame. There was not a gesture, habit or trait we had in common.
When I was introduced as their daughter, people couldn’t help showing surprise. We’d learned to ignore the looks but as a kid in school, it was hard to avoid the speculation. Kids, unschooled in tact, wouldn’t hesitate to ask questions like, “Maya, how come you don’t look like your mummy-daddy?” I was afraid to know why and so I lived with the feeling of being authorless, like the Vedas, I liked to think. I was appositely named too. Maya, meaning compassion, but also the web of apparitions that constitutes the world.
When I did get answers, the timing was significant. Every piece of self-knowledge was accompanied by a major event in Bombay. For every convulsion in my life was a parallel upheaval in the history of the city. As a result, I felt tied to Bombay and developed an interest in local history. I read books, took long walks in old neighbourhoods. Often I’d have Kersi for company. Kersi, a yoga teacher, lives a couple of floors below me in the building in which I’ve grown up. We were occasional lovers and he supplied me with weed.
Now Kersi was a real character, a person of extremes, what they call a mad Parsi. As a teenager he kept a rat snake that had to be let loose in Borivali national park after it escaped into his neighbour’s house. He collected ‘found objects’ long before they began appearing in art works in galleries, filling drawers with neatly labelled zip-lock bags containing things like discarded rubber chappals, stamps, lost keys, torn pages from books. He called his collection the Museum of Randomness or the Museum of Lost Stories. “Better you call it museum of kachra, rubbish,” his mother would say.
At some point in his twenties, Kersi fell hard for his neighbour’s daughter Aarti Punjabi, the one who’d found his rat snake curled in a corner of her living room. But she wasn’t interested and when she married her college sweetheart, Kersi, heartbroken, burnt her name on his forearm with a lighter. He would unburden himself to me from time to time on the terrace of our building where he’d go to smoke and I’d go to do jumping jacks and skip with my rope. I was ten years younger and discrete for my age. When I met Aarti in the lift or at her place when her mum invited me for koki, the stiff Sindhi breakfast paratha I adored, she’d tell me about the ways Kersi stalked her.
Kersi took to yoga after years of a sedentary chartered accountancy job, which busted his back. He applied himself with the same intensity with which he attached himself to everything else, practicing every day for years. Once he mastered the scorpion pose, he quit teaching. Not long ago, Kersi dated a Bengali girl fifteen years younger than him. She walked into his class with her apple-shaped face, almond-shaped eyes she lined with kohl even at seven in the morning and a red vest that exposed a tattoo on her back, the word ‘bidrohi’. She told him it’s Bengali for ‘rebel’ and that she’d had it tattooed during her years as a politically active student at JNU. Only phonies do things like that, I told him. But Kersi, reading her as a kindred spirit of extreme passions, asked her out the following class. Besotted, Kersi was eager to know sentences like ‘I want a kiss’ in Bengali. (He supplied me with free weed in exchange for Bengali lessons.) I tried to explain that there’s nothing seductive about ‘aami chumu khabo’. She dumped him after a few months claiming things were getting too “intense”. Then one day, as Kersi and I smoked companionably in his room, which had long been emptied of the Museum of Randomness in a raid by his mother, he leaned over and kissed me.
“What is this? Rebound?” I said.
“No, I’ve always been curious,” he said.
Excerpted from Half-Blood by Pronoti Datta. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.