Amitav Ghosh is a noted writer who has lived in Calcutta, Dhaka, and Rangoon, among many other places. His other books include The Circle of Reason; In An Antique Land; Dancing in Cambodia; The Calcutta Chromosome;
and The Glass Palace.
The Shadow Lines was published by Viking Penguin, New York, 1988.
Years afterwards, Robi told me that the first thing my grandmother said to Mayadebi when they met at the airport was: Where's Dhaka? I can't see Dhaka.
I tried then to see Dhaka as she must have seen it that night, sitting by her window. But I hadn't been to Dhaka, and in any case memories to go on, and those put together could give me only a picture in which I could see dimly in the middle distance, a vanishing into the right-hand corner; in the foreground a deeply shaded platform, porters and vendors, and a crowd of relatives jostling to meet the new arrivals as they step out of their carriage; in the background, perhaps, a glimpse of the minarets of a mosque. I can guess at the outlines of the image that lived in her mind, but I have no inkling at all of the sounds and smells she remembered. Perhaps they were no different from those in any of the thousands of railway stations in the subcontinent. Perhaps, on the other hand, they consisted of some unique alchemical mixture of the sounds of the dialect and the smell of vast, mile-wide rivers, which alone had the power to bring upon her that comfortable lassitude which we call a sense of homecoming.
At any rate, the one thing she was completely unprepared was the bare glass-and linoleum airport, so like the one she had just left. Nor was she prepared for the drive to Shaheb's house, along a straight road, flanked by tall eucalpyti and the occasional suburban bungalow.
May liked it. She said: What a pretty road, it's so much more open then Calcutta. But as for my grandmother, she kept saying: I've never seen any of this. Where's Dhaka?
The Dhaka she was thinking of was the city that had surrounded their old house.
She had talked to me often about that house and that lane. I could see them myself, though only in patches, for her memory had shone upon them with the interrupted brilliance of a lighthouse beam. So for example, I could see Kana-babu's sweet-shop at the end of their lane with absolute clarity, I could even see the pink cham-chams stacked in their trays, the freshly pressed shandesh heaped in orderly mounds beneath the cracked, discolored glass of the counter; I could hear the buzzing of the flies, and I could see Kana-babu sitting hunched behind his cash-box, scratching his stomach, the same Kana-babu who had once caught their cousin stealing a rosogolla and poured a whole potful of sticky syrup down the front of his shorts: I could see al that, because people like my grandmother, who have no home but memory, learn to be very skileed in the art of recollection. For me, Kana-babu's sweet-shop at the end of the lane was as real as the one down our own road, and yet I could not tell whether the lane itself was paved or unpaved, straight or curved, or even whether it had drains running along it.
Mayadebi's new house was at the other end of the city. It was in Dhanmundi. Because everything Robi told me about it, that name, Dhanmundi, because one of the secret sounds of my childhood, like the drumming of the monkey-man's dug-dugi and the tinkling of the bells of the Magnolia ice-cream cart in the stillness of hot afternoons; it became a part of my own secret map of the world, a map of which only I knew the keys and the co-ordinates, but which was not for that reason and more imaginary than the code of a safe to a banker.
I could not have escaped the name Dhanmundi even if I had wanted to; in the early seventies it was everywhere, in books, in newspapers. Sometimes in seemed to me that everything that happened in the capital of new-born Bangladesh happened in Dhanmundi: that was where ministers issued their statements, and unnamed but reliable Western diplomats confided in reporters; that was where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman lived and it was there that he died, one morning, when he stepped out on to a balcony to confront his uniformed assassins, unable to believe that they, clad in the uniforms he had given them, would turn their guns upon him, their Liberator. Reading those reports in the newspapers, I used to wonder whether, if Robi had still been there, thirteen years old, he would have heard those first bursts of gunfire which brought down the Sheikh's bodyguard, and have run to the rooftop and seen the old man's body crashing to the driveway, leaking blood, before Nityananda or his mother came running up the stairs behind him, and clapped their hands over his eyes and whispered breathlessly in his ears: Don't look, don't look - it's just a game.
But in 1964 Dhanmundi was barely a blueprint for the fashionable suburb it was later to become. It was a near-empty wasteland of flooded foundation trenches, boundary walls that enclosed nothing but dust grass, and a few huge walled-in houses that rose like catafalques above streets which existed only by common consent since that had no surfaces to mark them out from the fields that surrounded them. And so my grandmother, looking, perhaps, for sweet-shops and lanes, could not help exclaiming when she saw the Shaheb's house in Dhanmundi: But this is for foreigners; where's Dhaka? And Tridib could not resist the malicious pleasure of pointing out: But you are a foreigner now, you're as foreign here as May- much more then May, for look at her, she doesn't even need a visa to come here. At that, my grandmother gave May a long wondering look and said: Yes, I really am a foreigner here - as foreign as May in India or Tagore in Argentina. Then she caught another glimpse of the house and shook her head and said: But whatever you may say, this isn't Dhaka.
Still, it was a good house to be thirteen in: a wonderful place for Robi. It had a large roof, wide open and breezy, as good a place fore flying kites and any one could wish for; you had only to hold up a kite on that roof and the wind would snatch it out if your hands, its glass-coated string singing, and in an instant it would be so far away you would hardly be able to see it and wouldn't have the time to try, because it was all you could do to hold on to the string.
Like all the other houses in Dhanmundi, theirs had a high wall, running all the way around. At the back, just outside the wall, there was a pond where fishermen would come in the afternoons to try their luck. Usually it was quite a tame little pond, but in the monsoons, when the great cyclones of the Bay of Bengal struck Dhaka, that pond would turn purple, mirroring the sky, and it would rise with the wind and hurl itself on the house and go shooting through the driveway, out into the streets beyond. And when that happened, Nityananda, their cook, would run out into the flooded driveway, armed with an old sari, and drive the fish into the puddles in the garage and scoop them up. Sometimes he would keep the fish in there for days, in an earthenware pot, and run into the garage and pick out a fresh one whenever he wanted.