Unlock Diaries: The stories never written by Anuradha Kumar
I am always telling my friend that one day I shall write a story about his father. A man who brought his sons up as a single parent, who resigned from his job rather than give bribes to a civic body official, and who in the pre-internet days, made rounds of newspaper and magazine offices in Mumbai, his young son in tow, insisting why the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book, Satanic Verses, must be revoked. Like all good stories, this one remains to be written.
There’s this one about my aunt too, who for a decade and more, has been living in a remote village in north Bengal, away from the extended family. Once a teacher, she is now associated with a non-profit body. The much-repeated family story has turned her story into a sad one: a woman living by herself, with no emotional support. But my aunt was my first giver of books, the earliest teller of stories I remember, especially hair-raising, turning the night even darker kind of ghost stories. I have always thought her brave, and eccentric: a Wodehouse-like aunt minus the acerbity.
These days of lockdown have turned the world upside-down. Houses bustle inside with lives, and roads have gone silent. Things are quieter, sounds long forgotten have returned. People have been warned to lock themselves in, but every webpage you click on, every post you read has tragic stories of people on the move, those abandoned, helpless, and very hungry. In this locked down world, there is still connectivity: people reaching out, helping those when there is no other succour. People being humane, doing their duty. In the midst of this, my sister calls to remind me of my duty. She tells me I must call our aunt, who isn’t getting any younger, and has recently had a health scare.
It does me well to be reminded of my different duties. The strangeness of this disease, the randomness with which it strikes, and every other concomitant tragedy that has followed, drive home a certain knowledge: the world needs everyone’s commitment, and that one’s duties to others lie far beyond one’s immediate circle. Friends and perfect strangers have come together to form community in ways humbling and inspiring. I’ve also especially liked a glimpse into worlds that had slipped out of one’s memory.
Via video calls these last few weeks, I’ve seen the garden my father-in-law lovingly tends to in Patna; it’s riotously abloom this time of year. I see the flowers I have over the years learnt to recognize, that now form a background to his gently aging face, his speech that is now slower than before. There’s a sense of time’s passage, and the beauty in such transience. My mother-in-law swivels the phone around to show the low-hanging mango fruits on the tree that almost falls over onto the neighbour’s side. ‘Are they good?’ I ask, and she replies, ‘They are good if you are good too.’
When my friend in Bombay sends me pictures of a street in Dadar carpeted by fallen mahogany leaves, turning it brown-yellow in places, the city becomes familiar once again. It’s a photo taken from his balcony, and through a gap in the branches, you see the road, a white car parked across at times, a vendor or two as well. It seems timeless, that such a scene will always unfold for me, when there’s a friend with a camera.
Some days ago, my friend had messaged about his father having had a fall. But I am glad to now see a photo of his father. Sitting at a table, his spectacle case by his side, and the open newspaper. My friend’s father has always liked re-reading old magazines and papers. I tell him I once used to read the telephone directory — all the many names making up an old city — and am rewarded with a smiley.
One day, when the lockdown is lifted and the world returns to some of its old ways, I can return to the stories I wanted to write. I find myself toying with a story idea: a chat group that brings together everyone’s aging parents and relatives, and then it takes on a matchmaking role too. For instance, my friend’s father and my aunt reaching out, to talk of, and share their many interests and stories. Everything’s possible in fiction. I am sure neither my friend nor my sister will mind. A day or so ago, I received another photo from my friend. The mahogany tree sustained some damage from the recent cyclone but it’s still standing. I think it always will.
Anuradha Kumar is the author of eight novels, and two works of historical fiction written under the psuedonym of Adity Kay. She also writes for younger readers. She was awarded twice (2004, 2010) for her stories by the Commonwealth Foundation. Her most recent book is Coming Back to the City: Mumbai Stories published by Speaking Tiger.