“Let’s eat under the stars!”
Keshtokaka had been gone an hour now and Rohini and I had bored of Monopoly. We were starving and the casseroles, filled with steaming goodies on the dining room table, beckoned. My aunt and her brood wouldn’t be back for the next three hours at the very least.
I gaped at her,” Wha…you mean we take all this out to the terrace?” I wrinkled my nose. Basically a very large balcony, the terrace on that floor was too close to the traffic and all the dust. (My aunt’s house was a terraced building, with each floor provided with a spacious terrace that had no roof over it).
“No, silly, the rooftop,” Rohini chided, her eyes blazing like an adventure tourist’s. I was beginning to realize how timid I really was about everything. It was funny actually. Within me, there was a fire raging, not just in the context of Rohini but generally, while outwardly I was just a cute, nerdy kid.
“Sure! Quick!” She sprang up and shouted,” I saw a rolled-up shotoronchi in the prayer room. Let’s go get it and move all this yummy stuff upstairs to the rooftop!” A shotoronchi is a mat you will find in every god-fearing Bengali household. Made of thin, long reed sticks intricately woven together with jute fibres, it is usually found in prayer rooms, but if you like you could just sprawl out and catch forty winks on a shotoronchi.
On hot summer afternoons, a shotoronchi feels nice and cool and when you are done lolling around on it, you can roll it up and stow it standing up, in a corner. And then again, if you happen to be a bit bony and vigorously engaged in a canoodle on it, that might hurt a bit, especially if you are pinned down and slobbered over by a horny tomboy. But I’ll get to that later.
Rohini frequently broke into English, like she did now, making ‘sure’ sound like ‘shaw’. The North American twang seemed novel at the time. Add to that her habit of talking with her lips slightly parted and the whole thing was a huge turn on.
I was entirely overwhelmed by this girl, no question about it. Rohini was in control of this thing which was growing between us and beginning to acquire a life of it’s own. I don’t know why I was so passive or why I tried to resist it. Perhaps it was the mindset of the time, which dictated that it was the male’s prerogative to make all the moves.
Supper under the stars was fabulous, the rooftop bathed in a strange eerie starlight. You could see, but at the same time if you focused on a particular object you couldn’t quite discern it. Rohini had switched off the only bulb that was on the water reservoir wall, over the rooftop doorway. Evenings were usually still and muggy but that night, the air was alive and breezy, coming in over the Dhakuria lake, carrying with it, that distinctive musty, fishy-wet grass-wet earth-water hyacinth smell of the lake.
Four floors below, the traffic was a low rumble, interspersed with the tingly noise of bicycle bells and the cacophony of car horns. In India, blowing a horn is a traffic rule. If you are overtaking another vehicle for example, you have to blow your horn and he’ll stick his hand out and make a ‘pass’ motion and only then can you begin overtaking the guy.
Rohini had showered just prior and changed into a skimpy sleeveless banyan which had shoulder straps that seemed mighty lonesome. They didn’t have to jostle for space with bra straps. She wasn’t wearing a bra. Down south, she had on a light frilly frock that barely covered her knees. The hem of her frock had a life of it’s own. It rode up with the slightest movement, an occurrence that she seemed oblivious about.
She didn’t have to worry about being ogled at. It was dark and besides, my aunt’s house was way higher than any of the other buildings around us, except maybe the 16-floor tower on Southern Avenue but that was too far off to discern what was going on here, unless there happened to be a dirty old lech with a high-powered night scope up there. Voyeurs hadn’t yet become a fraternity in those days.
We lay head to foot on our sides facing each other, the casseroles in the middle, as we dipped our chapattis (flatbread that look like a tortillas) in the muror ghonto, a spicy curry made with the head of the rohu fish. On the side, there were hot soupy lentils that were Keshtokaka’s signature recipe.
Keshtokaka was a genius of a chef, besides being extremely likeable and jolly. Single-handedly, he managed to keep the whole dour household smiling with his own brand of mindless goofy humor. Without him around, looking at this household would be akin to examining an embroidery from the other side.
When Rohini began to hold forth on Canada and her life there, the similarity between the way her life and mine were turning out, struck me and maybe her too. The only daughter to a restaurateur father and a stay-home mother, things had suddenly gone south when her father decided one day last autumn that he needed some zing in his life. Prior to that, there had been the usual soul-splitting acrimony that would boil over once in a while, with her mother getting slapped around. Then one day, he was gone.
Luckily they were very well-to-do. Her father owned a chain of top-knotch Indian all-you-can-eat buffets that westerners flocked to in hordes. Rohini and her mother were left with a spacious apartment and more than generous monthly support payments. She had never been close to her father and therefore it hadn’t hurt much, or so she believed.
Then came along the light-hearted young Jean-Jacques Petit and his fiddle and soon after, her admission to the 4-year Bachelors program in Journalism at Montreal’s Concordia University and here she was, taking a break before the fall term began. Rohini wanted to be a war correspondent and cover the Vietnam War. Wow! It all seemed so very exciting and I felt so envious of her. Jean-Jacques’ aspirations in comparison, were tamer. He hoped that one day he would be given a spot in the Montreal Philharmonic, as a fiddler.
“So, while one braves bullets filming the next Mai Lai, the other plays the fiddle, huh?” I couldn’t help let the cynicism creep into my voice. That’s what I was – a shy introverted nerd and a cynic.
For my age, I was an unusually well-informed kid as regards world affairs and I knew exactly what was going down in Vietnam right then, especially since this was 1968, perhaps the most eventful year of the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive had happened in January and then in March, the Mai Lai Massacre shook up the world, making 1968 for Americans, the worst year of the war.
In many ways, 1968 had been a momentous year, not just for the Vietnam War, but for a lot of other folk round the world, me included, with the tearing apart of my family in a somewhat similar manner to the way Rohini’s did.
In multiple other ways too, 1968 would prove to be a seminal year. Apollo 8 would transmit the first breathtaking color pictures of a blue dime-sized planet covered by white cloudy wisps and brownish patches of land, emerging from below the stark lunar horizon.
Nearer home, in an obscure village called Bengai Jote, in the north of the eastern province of West Bengal, one afternoon in June 1968, Indian cops would murder a group of poor sharecroppers who had dared to rise up against their rich landlords, demanding better compensation. That incident would spark off a bloody Maoist insurgency, later named the Naxalite Movement, which embraced the Marxist-Leninist ideology of social justice through armed revolt. Over the years, the movement has gained in strength and steadily spread all over the eastern and southern Indian coastal provinces, seriously threatening not only India’s security but it’s very survival as a sovereign nation. 1968 had been a very profitable year for the news business, no question about it.
As for me, 1968 might have snatched away a home but it brought me a girl named Rohini and along with her, a growing sense that, by the time she left Kolkata in August, I would be transformed into a man.