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Low Tide in Hooghly

A debut novel tracks down two Calcuttas — separated by a century — and their demons

Written by Umamahadevan |
January 4, 2008 2:57:51 pm

Saikat Majumdar,
HarperCollins, Rs 295

Stanford academic Saikat Majumdar’s debut novel Silverfish is made up of two life stories that unfold in parallel as we turn the pages, but with a century of turbulent change separating them.

Kamal, the woman who narrates the first story, has been married into a large, affluent family in 19th century Bengal. Her life, like those of the other daughters-in-law, is spent cloistered within the inner courtyard of the great house while the men spent their time with Calcutta’s high-class courtesans. Kamal’s early years are happy enough, spent wandering on the terrace with her playmate Suhasini, the carriage driver’s daughter. But after the death of her husband, Kamal’s life changes dramatically. She becomes one of the ghosts who haunt the great house — head shaven, clad in white, slipping in and out of the shadows — a widow. Sati has long been banned by law, but Kamal knows that she is still condemned to a future of suffering. “I wasn’t going to die, but would I live?” she wonders.

Meanwhile, in contemporary Calcutta, retired schoolteacher and amateur writer Milan Sen haunts the corridors of the bureaucracy in search of his pension. Around him the city continues with its great obsessions. Protest rallies hold up traffic for hours while agitating against “the vile work of imperialism”; college boys get into street fights; clerks go off for extended tea breaks. Finally, the old schoolteacher, who has spent 40 years of his life teaching in a government school, is advised to approach the local CPI (M) MLA for help in tracing his pension file. As the frail old man makes his way through the city’s crowded streets, he also sifts through his memories — and we see the gradual decline of a whole way of life, with books, friendships and all things of grace and beauty losing their value, and the voices of little people being condemned to silence.

Milan reflects on the inevitability of such a decline: “Too many stories never left this place, got buried under layers of dust and the death of memory. There were always the journeys in crowded buses, hours with students who never cared, tea in the morning and the afternoon in tiny earthen cups at roadside stalls, weary chat with the regulars, the coldness of bureaucracy, more tea, a cigarette or two, breathlessness, a dull ache in the chest. A voice unheeded, uncared for…”

Majumdar’s skilful, evocative descriptions, from little details like Thin Arrowroot biscuits and Santiniketan bags to the crawling traffic and workaday commutes on the streets, bring the city to life. The most powerful descriptions — which offer the sharpest commentary on our cities today, where so much is changing and so much else is still the same — are of the terrifying claustrophobia of the government offices where the clerks wait indifferently behind dusty heaps of files. Milan waits patiently, at No. 5645, holding the application form in his hand until he hears the amount it will take to clear his pension case: Rs 6,000 in ready cash, wrapped in brown paper, tied in strings. And then he drops the form that he has just filled up, because it doesn’t matter anyway — he’ll never have that kind of money to offer. He realises how useless all his pleas have been: “Forms, facts, words, none read, none given a nook on desks, in files.”
Silverfish is a moving debut from a talented new voice.

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