The opening to Buku Sarkar’s novel Not Quite A Disaster After All, published by HarperCollins India in January 2023
Of all the compartments of day that passed through that house, the hours I remember most vividly were of the afternoon. When time moved slowest of all, dragging away with it the hysteria from the morning. It was when the sun moved from shutter to shutter, past furniture and bedspreads, over tapestries and rugs and across stone floors, polished doors and brass knobs, room through room, on to the walls on the opposite side of the house. In the safety of the afternoon, nothing happened. Nothing was expected. There was no school, no chores, no aunts or uncles or cousins to endure. In this house filled with voices and footsteps, a time allowed and a time needed to bridge the discrepancy between who you were and who you wanted to become. Under the canopy of the day, you could see, from this distance, how shattered the world was that we lived in and how beautiful its dust. But, from memory, all the people in our house chased the afternoons away—with naps and televisions and the chill of the air conditioner.
The women in the house would retire—each to her own chamber, on her respective floor—after having tended to the children, to the kitchen and the prayer room. It was when their real lives began—behind closed doors, in darkness, breathing into their grief.
My grandmother, in a mound of white, in her small day room on the first floor, resting before once again bellowing out her life’s losses in a high-pitched rage.
My eldest aunt in her room, a floor above, having taken care of everyone’s lunch, pleased that the cake she had toiled over all morning had turned out well. There was always a cake cooling on the black coffee table outside. She had the air-conditioning on even during the day. I can picture her angelic nose, the lips, pointing up towards the ceiling, as a stillness, even calmer than her normal demeanour, took over. I imagine she was thinking about her two children— fussing over their meals in her sleep, their clothes, their school chores. When she’d awake from her nap, she would ask for tea and then her busy footsteps would sprawl against the green stone. Her smile so balanced you’d never know uncle had come home in another stupor the previous night and sat on top of the mosquito net, his heavy frame making the bed poles lean inwards, over her sleeping body.
My second aunt, a new addition to our family, in her own room—by the staircase and the little kitchenette on the second floor—watching a Hindi film, the television set kept high on top of a cabinet so she could see it from her king-sized bed. Her room still smelling of the discontent of whisky and cigarettes even though her husband, my other uncle, had long gone to work.
And outside, in the living room where truth was knocking—a handkerchief fallen from someone’s waist, a cup with pink lipstick marks. Ruins of their sadness.
My mother, like my father and his brothers, was at work. Ganesh had made sure the windows were closed three-quarters of the way to keep the sun out. He had switched off the fans in rooms not being used. And then he too would curl inside the patience of the day in his quarters in the outhouse. I wandered through the silence and the dreams, through the terrace, free and unnoticed. Afternoons were bleak, without the promises of a new day, like nightfall, but afternoons were a time to imagine—of all the things that would never be true.
I’d never been at home in that house—even at the age of five. I would look at the green stone floors with the yellow borders that cascaded down like a royal carpet, and know, intrinsically, somewhere inside, that something was missing in my life. I never knew what that ‘thing’ was—other than knowing that I didn’t have it. I would search for it all afternoon, walking from one dark and empty room to another. Touching bedsheets and windows. I would open closet doors and look inside. There was not a crack in the house that wasn’t filled with things—cabinets full of food, antique furniture, carved divans in shining mahogany, chandeliers and statues and glass cases in my grandmother’s room filled with all the mementos she had collected during her travels across the world. A flamenco dancer dressed in white-and-pink lace, her arms moveable and also easily breakable, was my favourite. In my own room, I had a collection of dolls that my father would bring back from London and a small electronic synthesizer I would occasionally pour my laments into. But nowhere could I find what I was really looking for. Somewhere out there was my real life—hidden beneath folds of bliss.
It was only when my parents took me abroad for the first time that summer, instead of leaving me with the larger family, that I got a glimpse of it. Amongst various places in Europe and many museums with large paintings, we went to a small town near Zurich, where we stayed in an old, converted palace by the lake. I liked this town the best as it was devoid of any historic monuments and sights and there were only two directions to go: to the left of the hotel which led into a corridor of trees bordered by the lake on one side and, on the other, green that went on past endlessness. If one walked along the pebbled path long enough, one came across a small playground with two swings made of tyre and a climbing wall made of blue nylon rope. The path to the right of the hotel led to the centre of town and to the old wooden bridge you had to cross in order to get to the small spray of shops. There was a jewellery shop right in the corner before you turned into the puzzle of lanes.
One evening, on a walk to town with my parents for a little ‘window shopping’ as my mother called it while my father winked at me indicating, in silence, that the chocolate shop would well be on the way, I saw a boy and a girl. Much older than me to call them children but still too full of mirth to call them adults. They were walking up front. It was chilly, although the sun was out, and they strolled wrapped together, their hands in each other’s back pockets. The girl was wearing jeans and a short jacket that ended at her waist. Her long, wavy hair blew freely in the whispering wind. They walked slowly, stopping every once in a while; at one point we overtook them, and then they continued past us as my father paused to take photographs of my mother in front of the lake. My father was a perfectionist, which meant that these pauses were long enough for the couple to make quite a headway and I’d find myself constantly looking over so as to not lose sight.
The boy and the girl didn’t seem to be going anywhere particular and with any urgency—the way my father always walked. Instead, they loitered on the promenade, moving as slowly as the lake, their legs crossing lazily in front of each other, unperplexed by the world around them. They looked towards each other and kissed. There was nothing else there, on that busy promenade—just the girl, the boy and the splintering lake.
That moment, which I remember so vividly, was when I realized what I was fundamentally missing. Not a boy or a kiss, neither of which I had seen in our house, but the space to behave and be without any judgement, without any care as to who was nearby. It was not defiance. It was freedom.
I was her in another life. I could have been her.
Can you miss someone you’ve never known?
When we returned from the trip, my days felt pointless and incomplete and often I would walk around the mid-day house with a hollow feeling in my chest, searching for something. That moment.