Issue #19 |

Talking to Tagore

Baba spent the early hours of the morning in his study. He was writing a novel and didn’t want to be disturbed. On bad days he yelled at Ma who then yelled at me. On good days he took me to the bookstore.

I could only read the books he selected. Thakurmar Jhuli was permitted. Peter Pan was not.

“My girl,” he said when I reached for Matilda, “do you know who uses the English language? The British.”

Each month he handed me a Bengali novel. By the time I was twelve, I knew the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Begum Rokeya. I memorized verses from Gitanjali and recited them day and night. This irritated Ma. She promised me a lashing with the bamboo stick if I didn’t be quiet.

“Like father, like daughter,” she said.

“I am glad she takes after me,” responded Baba.

Then Ma became ill. I sat beside her and listened to her read from the paperbacks she had kept from her days as a schoolteacher. Shakespeare was her favorite, but I preferred the stories about Sherlock Holmes and begged for more chapters. Her books had broken spines and faded pictures on the covers. After she fell asleep, I relit the kerosene lamp and read on.

 

Ma died a week before my fifteenth birthday. Baba wept at her funeral. I couldn’t tell if he missed her or missed arguing with her. He ate little and slept a lot and yelled at Lubna for not putting enough cannabis in his bhang. Then he remembered the book he was writing. The next great Bengali novel. All day he stayed in his study. He turned away visitors. When beggars came knocking for a cup of rice, he told them to go to hell. Lubna was terrified to bring him cha, and so the task fell to me.

“Baba,” I called, placing the tray on his littered desk. “The electrician called twice about last month’s bill.”

“Are you blind?” he asked without looking up. “Can’t you see that I’m in the middle of something?”

When I went back later to retrieve the tray, the teacup was full. The same thing happened the next evening, and the one after that.

 

One morning I woke up and found him standing by my bedroom window.

“You look like her when you’re asleep,” he said. Then he saw Oliver Twist sticking out from beneath my pillow.

“It’s for school,” I lied as he searched my room. He found Bronte behind the curtains and Austen in the almirah. He shook his head, called me a traitor, and walked away.

 

Back in 1981, Baba arrived in London on a student visa. He brought with him a single suitcase. For the first few months he looked for part-time employment. He washed dishes at a restaurant and drove a taxi. At university he struggled to keep up with his studies. He had few friends and his classmates said they could not understand him when he spoke.

One night a man followed him from the grocery store, held a knife to his neck, and took his wallet. He pushed Baba to the ground. He kicked him and broke his arm and called him a dirty Paki.

Baba returned home. He used his savings to buy some land and sold it for interest. He built a house, bought more acres, met Ma, and got married. A year later I was born.

 

To appease him I tried to talk to him about Bengali novels.

“Let’s go to the bookstore,” I said. I couldn’t remember the last time we had stepped out together. I thought of our old rituals, the uphill walk to hail a rickshaw, the narrow, winding streets, the smell of the fresh starfruit we bought from a street vendor. Once, I had absentmindedly wiped my hands clean with the hem of my blue dress, leaving it stained.

“Ma won’t be happy,” I said. “She had this washed two days ago with Wheel soap.”

“Leave her to me,” Baba responded, and we laughed, two conspirators, and bought more starfruit with extra chili. It couldn’t have been that long ago, and yet it felt like it had been years.

Now Baba refused to look at me. “Why should I go anywhere with you? Who are you to me?”

I watched his restless scribbling, the stubborn set of his shoulders. I left him alone.

A few months later I had a fever. Ma had always known, somehow, when I was about to be sick. She would rub sesame oil into my temples and press a warm washcloth to my forehead. She would sit by me, gently scolding me for being ill again, until I fell asleep.

My bedroom felt big and empty. I splashed water on my face, hoping it would help. Then I walked down to Baba’s study. There he was, face pressed against his desk, sleeping with his glasses on.

“Baba,” I called. I knelt by him and shook him by the shoulder. When he didn’t move, I pressed his hand to my burning cheek. “Baba.”

He didn’t wake up. I went back to my room. I lay in bed and closed my eyes, determined not to cry.

 

In high school I received good marks in English class. I looked up idioms and learned grammar rules. At home I watched foreign films on the television and listened to American music on the radio.

“Turn off that noise,” said Baba. “It is distracting me from my novel.”

At supper he complained about the food. The rice was overdone, and the lentils not done enough. He said the chicken tasted like paper and threatened to fire Lubna. She went back to the kitchen, crying.

“Tears are for the weak-willed,” said Baba. “Do you think Kazi Nazrul Islam cried when the British locked him up?”

He recited Bidrohi as I ate in silence. Afterwards I could still hear him from my bedroom. Who was he talking to? I turned the radio on, just loud enough to hide his voice, and fell asleep.

 

At the time my classmates were sitting for the SATs. I also took the test. I applied to American colleges in secret and, a year later, I was admitted to a university in Iowa with a scholarship that included tuition, lodgings, and a plane ticket.

Baba refused to see me the day of my departure. He shut himself in his study and didn’t answer when I knocked.

 

To read this story, please purchase a copy of issue #19 or, to never miss an issue of Story, subscribe to the magazine

Noor Imaan’s writing has appeared and is forthcoming in Cagibi, Breakwater Review, Missouri Review, Boston Review, Indiana Review and elsewhere. She studied fiction at Boston University, where she won the Florence Engel Randall Graduate Award and received a Leslie Epstein Global Fellowship. Her story, “The Neighbors,” was selected as the winner of Boston Review’s 2019 …

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