An unlikely subject has been occupying our eight-year-old daughter over the past week: the failing health of former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu.
The old man’s fragile condition first swum on to Oishi’s radar as we made our way from Delhi to Kolkata last week, from one publication event for my new novel to another. Everyone (and by this inclusive, rather grand-sounding word, I mean myself, my wife and the people who attended the event in Kolkata and bought copies of the book) was worried that if the old man died on the day of the event (January 9) or the day before it, there would be no event to go to. We know Kolkata, you see. We know how all this works.
As it turned out, he held on. And 39 (or however many) copies of the novel were sold that evening, before much wine was drunk and very many fine cheese platters were consumed at the publication event.
On Friday night (Oishi up late — characteristically thrilled to be so —because there was no school the following day), Basu — like Banquo in Macbeth, but as yet unlike his, I mean, Banquo’s, ghost — popped up at the preprandial, family drinks party. Pearl Jam’s Backspacer was on, loud, on the stereo.
“So is Jyoti Basu dead yet?” Oishi asked.
“No, not yet,” I said. “But it looks as though he won’t hang on for much longer.”
“Oh. Why?” Pause. “At least the event for your novel wasn’t disrupted.”
Followed by a Bengali word that meant that we had been unutterably lucky, accompanied by a gentle blow to her chest and a goggle-eyed puffing out of cheeks. Who but a child will have this non-hypocritical, spontaneous candour? Pause. “But will he really die?”
“Of course,” I said, with forced nonchalance. I sensed what was coming. Who but an adult will do forced nonchalance, anticipating the next question, planning the answer while trying to savour the scotch, pull on the cigarette and turn the page of the book on his lap all at the same time?
“Does everyone die in the end?” Here it was...
“Yes, of course.” More forced nonchalance, and an amused recollection of Milton Keynes. And some talk about multi-organ failure, its meaning, and ramifications.
“How old is he?””
“Very old. Very, very old. Nearly a hundred.” Scotch, ciggie, page.
“How old is Dada?” (That is what Oishi calls my father.)
“Oh. That’s not nearly a hundred.”
“No, but not everyone lives to be nearly a hundred.” Say it, say it, now is the time.
And I did.
“See, people die. They always do. At some point or the other. It happens.
Nothing one can do about it.” There. I said it.
“How old are you, Baba? Forty, I know.”
“Yes, forty.” Forced smile.
“Oooh, a hundred is a long way off.” Mental arithmetic.
“No, not everyone, as I said, lives to be so old. People die. They can die at any age. One can’t tell, Oishi.”
Who but a child would have such confidence?
Oishi has been lucky. Unlike mine, her childhood has never been clouded by the death of loved ones.
But it will happen. It will come. And then she will have to deal with it.
(Soumya Bhattacharya’s new novel, If I Could Tell You (Tranquebar), is in bookstores now)