The boy had been sitting on the man’s lap in the front porch, his eyes listless, unseeing. The man he called Naw-Mesho was trying hard, to cheer him up.
The man pointed up at the sky. “Look, there, can you see it now? No? OK, try this. Pucker your eyes till they’re slits and now look. Do you see? Well?” Naw-Mesho gently lifted the boy’s chin up to the heavens.
The boy hesitated and then shook his head. Naw-Mesho took the little boy’s tiny hand in his, stretched the index finger out and pointed it up at the heavens. Around them, the clear night sparkled with fireflies while a constant background drone of crickets kept on their clamor. Everywhere, all was still.
Naw-Mesho scared the boy, he was so huge. In reality, he was a real cool guy. ‘Mesho’ in Bengali is your mother’s sister’s husband. The ‘Naw-‘ ahead of Mesho is a curious thing. Its like the ‘Additional’ in ‘Additional Secretary’.
Let me explain how it works in Bengal. Suppose your mother has two elder sisters. To her, the eldest is ‘Bordi’ or simply ‘Didi’ and the one in between your mum and Didi is ‘Chordi’. Now if your mother has three elder sisters instead of two (like if your Gramps was catholic about birth control), then the sister between Didi and Chordi is your mother’s Naw-di and to you, she’d be Naw-Mashi and her husband, Naw-Mesho.
Even though he was a sweetheart, Naw-Mesho scared the boy all the same. The boy couldn’t see the bright object his uncle was pointing at. He shook his head and stammered,” I..I can’t..”
Naw-Mesho was an infinitely patient man. “Okay, here’s what you do. Don’t look directly at it. Look slightly to the left or right….”
The boy looked slightly to the left at a pitch dark region devoid of stars and there it was! It looked like a broom of the kind that was used in Indian households, a bunch of thin long sal bristles held together by a hemp band. Only, this one was shining white, coated with glittering diamonds. The open end of the bristles seemed slightly curved and pointed at an angle up beyond the horizon.
The boy began nodding his head in excitement,” I see it! I see it!” He started bobbing up and down on his uncle’s lap in the joy of discovery. He looked up at the large man’s face and saw him break into a broad grin.
Suddenly the boy stopped short and as Naw-Mesho’s hands gently gripped his shoulders, the boy’s eyes filled and he had a hard time controlling the tears.
The boy had been crying the past three days. Off and on, more on than off. Dada and Chorda (his elder brothers) seemed to be doing much better. They were quieter and more withdrawn. A doctor had dropped by to check on them, taking them aside one by one and speaking to them in low tones.
The boy dared not ask either brother what the doc had wanted. These were not normal older brothers. They were homicidal bullies. If you messed with Dada and Chorda, you stood a good chance of getting a thappor (open-palmed slap on the cheek) or a gatta (bare-knuckled klunk on your shiner). Theirs was one team sport you just couldn’t fix in your favor.
The past two days however, the boy could hardly recognize his two elder brothers. They held him in turns and comforted him every chance they got. The frowns of irritation, the murderous looks, the punches, they seemed as if they had never existed. Now they smiled gentle reassuring smiles through reddened eyes, smiles that the boy had always craved to see but had never known they existed.
“She’ll be back, you’ll see,” Naw-Mesho was saying,” Your Ma has just gone away for a while. Don’t you sometimes wish you ran away and became a fighter pilot? It’s something like that”. (The Indo-Pak War was on and those days every kid the boy knew wanted to be Flt. Lt. Trevor Keelor). Naw-Mesho reached in his pocket and began to dab at the boy’s eyes softly with a kerchief.
The object in the sky was the comet, Ikeya-Seki. At the moment when the boy caught sight of it, it was still a million miles from the surface of the sun. In the next two months it would gradually grow in luminescence until it would come to be known as the “Great Comet”, the brightest in a thousand years to ever have lit up the sky.
The year was 1965.
And the boy….me.