Once Again Next Year
by Oindrila Mukherjee
It was October in Michigan and the colors had begun to change. The oak, maple, and ash trees surrounding the house were brilliant shades of red, orange, yellow. Behind the hundred-year-old house lay the ravine, cool and dark with its canopy of evergreen firs. The sky overhead was a clear, bright blue. But the weather was turning, and the afternoons were getting a little chilly. Soon it would be dusk and the lights would come on in all the old houses on the street.
Inside one of the houses, Monica sat curled up on the couch, shaking a little. She had fallen asleep in the middle of the party and just woken up from a nightmare. The others were sitting on the carpet and passing a joint around. The living room smelled of beer, and open cans of Bud Light were scattered throughout the room. On the desk in the corner, a Macbook that belonged to the host, Peter, was open to a screensaver of fall colors. Folksy music that Monica couldn’t recognize played from it. She was the only one in the room who wasn’t smoking pot and still her head swam a little.
In her dream, she and James had been walking on the streets of Calcutta, along with thousands of others who had ventured out to see the pandals. Suddenly, without any warning, the crowd, drunk on their puja eagerness, turned on James and beat him up. Monica screamed and tried to help, but there were too many of them. They glared at her and called her names for being with a black man and continued to beat him until he lay on the ground bleeding and motionless. The sight of him in her dream had woken her up, shaking and sweating, but the others were too stoned to notice. Monica wondered what had brought about the dream on what had seemed like a perfectly pleasant fall afternoon. Why had the violent ghost of Durga Puja surfaced again after all these years? Looking around her, she studied the laidback group of grad students who were now her constant companions. There was no danger here, she knew. This small college town in the American Midwest was as safe as they came. Still, the dream disturbed her. It reminded her with a sudden clarity that it was that time of year, when everyone back home would be celebrating.
In the five years that she had been in America, Monica had tried five different ways of celebrating the puja. The first year, she had sat alone in her tiny studio apartment, watching black and white Bengali movies on TV. The movies made her nostalgic for the city she had left just a month ago, and she wondered if she had made the right decision to come away and leave her mother alone in that block of condos in south Calcutta.
The second year, she allowed her two new Bengali friends to take her to the Durga Bari in Detroit. They piled into a used Toyota Corolla and drove into the big city where Bengali families from neighboring states had gathered. For Monica, the evening was a whirlwind of people pushing and yelling to get to the food, flashes of silk saris and gold jewelry, and a medley of unfamiliar but clearly Bengali faces, round and soft, ready to break into smiles. Monica, in her salwaar and sleeveless kurti, felt shy and out of place, as if she were not an authentic Bengali.
The third year, a friend’s colleague’s older brother invited her over to his house in west Michigan for a gathering. By then she had her own used Japanese car, and drove two hours on the freeway to get to their gated community. All the houses there looked identical with front lawns like green mats that had been rolled out and back lawns with sprinklers cooling the grass and barbecue grills. Everyone was very warm to her in a slightly condescending way because she was a student, single and childless, and because she slept until noon. She listened to all the chatter and wondered what her childhood friends and cousins in Calcutta were doing.
She spent the fourth year with Indian students who were not Bengali. They were Telugu, Maharashtrian, Tamilian, Bihari. This secular bunch were from the sciences and engineering. They sat around an apartment that three students shared and watched a new Hindi film featuring Salman Khan. Monica did not find the jokes in the film very funny and let her mind drift to her last Durga Puja in Calcutta, when she and her best friend Joyoti had sat in Maddoq Square checking out boys in their shiny new kurtas and churidars. They had driven around the southern neighborhoods, stopping to eat puchka at one or two places, and finally ended up in Jodhpur Park where the bottleneck traffic jams forced them to get out and walk. The lights were even more dazzling that year than usual. Peacocks displayed their fans along the street. The blue and green colors lit up the skies like permanent streaks of lightning. The idols, dripping in gold and silk, were almost too much to bear. The city had put on display its most ostentatious side, as if it were a farewell for Monica. The throng of people who pushed and pulled to get a better glimpse of the goddess and the rhythmic crescendo of dhaaks pounding had made Monica’s head spin. Compared to the sensory overload of that night, there was nothing here in America to even hold her attention.
Still, Monica felt that in Michigan she had found snow and peace. On quiet winter nights, she turned the lights off in her small studio apartment and stared out at the hazy skies. The snow kept falling and falling until it covered everything—the yard, the winding driveway, the rooftops, the cars. It made no sound, unlike the lashing monsoon rains of her childhood. She watched it accumulate and imagined it covering up the uneven, damaged parts of her brain. It was only when she was among Indians that she felt the stirrings of a familiar restlessness, something almost akin to fear.
This year, her fifth, instead of seeking Indians, she chose simply to stay with her American friends from the English department. The best thing about them was they all liked to read. There were books everywhere in the house Peter shared with his roommate. The American students always had bigger homes, proper furniture, and many books. Monica was envious. She missed her books back home and her mother. It was Ashtami after all, the middle and most important day of the puja. Ma would wake up early and put on a new white cotton sari with a crimson border, and make her way downstairs for anjali. She would stand patiently with her head bowed, listening to the priest chant slokas in Sanskrit and, on cue, join the others to hurl her flower petals at the goddess. Tonight, she would call Monica to tell her she missed her. She would say that everyone in the building asked about her even though Monica knew it was not true. She would beg her to go to Detroit the following weekend, ten days after the real puja ended, to attend the fake festivities with people she didn’t know. “You should go, try to make some new friends, meet some Bengali men,” she would say. Monica would sigh deeply and hang up the phone, wondering what she would say if she knew about James.
She walked into Peter’s kitchen to get a glass of water. The American kitchens were so charming with their wood floors and rustic dining tables. She wished they had those back home so the whole family could have sat down and talked to the housewives as they cooked. Then cooking might not have been so isolating for the women.
Peter’s ten-year-old brother Jake ambled in. He was a scrawny kid with sandy hair and freckles. He was visiting for the weekend. Monica had never met him before although some of the boys seemed to know him from earlier visits. She smiled at him uncertainly, feeling shy as she typically did with children.
Outside the kitchen window the yard was strewn with red and yellow leaves. In Calcutta everyone would be out in a few hours, dressed up and freshly showered. The dhaakis would start beating the dhaaks at sunrise, just after sunset here in Michigan. Monica remembered the excitement she felt back in her high rise in Calcutta, as she came down the stairs during Durga Puja in her new outfit, wondering if this or that boy would be around. She remembered walking to the large community hall on the roof with her friends and sitting down in a row at the long table for lunch. Khichuri on Saptami, dhokar dalna and pulao on Ashtami, goat curry on Nabami. Afterwards, they would sit in circles and play Winking Murderer with little pieces of paper.
James walked into the kitchen and got another beer from the fridge. He cracked it open and put his arms around Monica. He smelled of beer and weed.
“Hey Jake,” he said, speaking to the boy, not her. “How’s it going?”
Jake shrugged. “It’s alright,” he said.
They talked about video games and Monica tuned them out. James was taking German classes and owned the biggest collection of graphic novels Monica had ever seen in one place. He knew when to talk to her about politics and literature, and he also knew when to leave her alone. But she knew some of the Indian students laughed at him when she wasn’t around and made racist jokes. They couldn’t understand why she would go out with a kallu when there were so many white men around.
Three large pizzas lay in boxes. The stoners trooped in to grab slices. They were ravenous from their afternoon smoke. Monica wondered if she should have smoked with them. She felt indifferent about it since nothing interesting had ever happened the few times she’d tried it. But everyone else clearly enjoyed it. Their voices were louder now. Outside, the sun was setting. Everyone seemed to be shouting. Some were arguing about the scariest horror movie they had ever seen. The skies had grown dark and the world seemed poised on the edge of something. The music sounded melancholic. It made her want to be alone.
Monica wandered upstairs to get away from people. Laughter came from one of the bedrooms. She recognized the voices. Jake and James. They sounded like a comic strip. Suddenly, the kid squealed.
“Put me down!” Jake said.
Monica entered the room. James had his arms around Jake’s waist and had lifted him off the ground. She stepped forward from the shadows, her fists clenched.
“Put him down,” she said in a low voice.
“What’s your problem?” James said, surprised. “I was just messing with him.”
“You were hurting him,” she said. Her head had begun to throb from the smoke and the music.
“I was not,” said James. He peered at her. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. But why are you in his room?”
James stretched up to his full height, which was quite imposing. He was lean and tall and reminded her of all the basketball players she had ever seen on TV. Monica wondered if she was stereotyping black men.
“What is wrong with you? The kid was showing me his new video game. I have known Jake for ten years,” James said slowly. “He’s my best friend’s brother. I’m not going to hurt him.”
Jake was staring at them curiously. Monica felt terribly embarrassed. She was suddenly struck by a pang of envy for Jake and Peter and all the other Americans who had known the same people all their lives and moved with one another and stayed in touch with their families and went back to their hometowns whenever they pleased.
“I’m sorry, I just thought you were being too rough with him and he might not like it,” she said, not looking at either of them. Turning to leave, she paused for a moment.
“It’s Durga Puja in India. Actually, not just in India. Everywhere.”
She didn’t wait for a response, but went quickly down the stairs and walked outside. In the yard, she stood on the heap of fallen leaves and crunched them with her heels. From where she stood, she could see the people inside, drinking beer and laughing. Curtains framed the windows. Lights shone inside every house on the quiet street. No one here knew about the puja. Not even James, who had been so sensitive and kind to her from the day they first met nearly seven months ago, could guess that Monica would never go back to Calcutta during the puja. None of them knew that she felt little sense of spiritual well-being when she envisioned the gods and goddesses decked in all their finery in various pandals across her hometown. In fact, no one in America knew her at all. She had hung out with them, listening to their music, talking about their books, eating their food. She had wandered, with a sense of curiosity mingled with affection, into a relationship with one of them. She had taken from them really, but not given anything of herself. They had not asked, and now this suddenly filled her with disappointment. The dream from which she had woken up a short while ago still haunted her. In it, she and James were on the same side, alienated from the Indians. But how could they be on the same side when she felt unable to share her memories with him?
From some unknown distance the dhaaks started up, softly at first, like the patter of raindrops, then louder and louder until they echoed off the walls of her tiny room in Calcutta. She smelled the smoky incense from the dhunuchi pot, and with it the faint stench of cheap Indian whiskey. From somewhere in the darkness rose the groans of a skinny, stammering boy and the chanting voices of a group of young men and women. Aaschey bachar aabar hobey. The annual slogan of the pujas that was meant to reassure everyone about the continuity of the festival, of joy and of life itself. Once again next year.
Sitting under an elm tree, with dry, brittle leaves in a pile around her, Monica thought how different autumn was now in her life. So quiet, so still. It had been six years since she had glimpsed a dhunuchi dance. Twelve years since she had actually watched one with any interest. That particular evening, she had been thirteen, and the pujas had come late and the air was crisper than usual.
The dhunuchi dance was underway in the pandal in their high rise. Shomen, the self-appointed gangster from flat 7-A, started out slow and then worked himself up to a frenzy. He was joined by Bikram from 1-B. The two danced like mad men. Their eyes began to look feverish. The dhaaks got louder and louder and the boys went faster and faster, until Monica thought they would collapse. The smoke from the dhunuchi swirled in the air. Even those watching and clapping in a circle around them, little children, middle-aged parents, elderly grandparents, began to sweat. Behind them the stage looked abandoned without the idols. Once the dance ended, Monica knew, the festivities too would cease, and the air would collapse into sadness. It was the middle of October, and the nights were beginning to feel less humid. She had lived in this building all her life. Sometimes the tenants changed, but mostly the flats were occupied by their owners. Year after year they formed committees to collect funds and organize the different pujas. Year after year, about a month before Durga Puja, the children began rehearsing for the play they would perform and the grown-ups held meetings where they argued in loud voices. The pandal was erected, the idols brought in with much ululation and blowing of conch shells, the folding chairs placed in front of the stage.
But the evening of Bijoya Dashami always felt bittersweet. It heralded not only the end of the puja, but also the twilight of another year. Once the pandal was taken down and the chairs folded up and removed, once everyone went back to school and work, the world would become quiet again and ready itself for Calcutta’s mild winter.
Overcome by a feeling of nostalgia from the past five days, Monica crept away from the crowd and wandered into the parking lot behind the pandal. Cars stood in rows, separated by concrete pillars. This was where they used to play hide and seek when they were younger, darting in and out from the shadows, crouching down between vehicles. But tonight, it was deserted. Monica perched on the bonnet of a Maruti where it was dark. On the other side, the sound of the dhaaks pounded the walls and people shouted and clapped. But all she felt was a sense of loss.
For the rest of her life she would never be able to explain where the men came from. She would also never forget the feeling of terror that gripped her when she saw their shadows. She couldn’t tell who they were at first, but their voices and Bihari accents gave them away. It was Mr. Sen’s driver, Ajay, and his brother, who cooked for 5-D. There was one other person with them whom she couldn’t recognize.
At first she thought they might harass her. Their laughter sounded drunk, and they stumbled when they walked. She wondered if she should scream. But they didn’t come toward her. In fact, they didn’t even seem to know she was there.
“Donkey,” Ajay suddenly yelled. “Come here.” He pulled someone by the head.
That was when she saw him. Boltu, the slowpoke who washed the two-wheelers every morning.
When Ajay grabbed him, Boltu made some guttural sounds. It was not that he never spoke real words. Monica had heard him say “Ma,” “Didi,” “Dada.” But apart from those words for people he thought he could trust, whatever came out of his throat was nonsensical, like a baby’s babbling.
That night, between the cars, as the servants pushed him against the wall and rubbed his face in the cold cement, Boltu’s sounds became louder and louder, a mix of groans and cries. He sounded like an animal in distress. But his sounds were drowned out by the dhaaks. Monica knelt between two cars, weeping with fear and pity, as the men grunted and swore in Bengali, uttering words that made her sick. She closed her eyes to avoid seeing their silhouettes. Instead, behind her closed eyes, she saw a clean young boy dressed in jeans and a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt, dancing with the dhunuchi in his hands. She saw the smoke rise in all directions and the orange silken drapes of the pandal flutter in the autumn breeze. Earlier that day she had sat next to the driver in the truck that carried the gods to the Ganga for the immersion. In her hands she had a long, cylindrical balloon that squeaked in the wind. Behind her, inside the truck, all the dadas and didis from the building chanted in unison, Aaschey bachar aabar hobey. Once again next year.
Inside the parking lot, she waited until the men had left. Then she got up and ran past the shivering body of Slow Poke Boltu, who was gurgling and wheezing on the ground, and up the stairs and across the roof to her flat. That night she lay awake, deafened by the echoes of the boy’s silent screams, watching her own figure crouched behind a car, paralyzed, unable or unwilling to step out and help a child who was in need of it.
Monica got up and shook off the leaves from her jeans. That was twelve years ago. Boltu had vanished from the building after that night. The rumor was that someone from his family had whisked him off, or whatever was left of him, to their village. No one ever saw or heard of him again. At first Monica toyed with the idea of telling someone, but it was the thought of those men, drunken and lecherous and always lurking around the grounds, that prevented her. Months went by and she grew busy with school and life, and the trials of the working class boy who was no longer around seemed less important.
And yet, every year when the puja came around, she remembered the scattering of flower petals, the sweet taste of the prasad, the glitter of lights across her hometown, and the way the boy had opened his mouth in silent screams. She had thought that after all this time in a cold land, among well-meaning people like James, she had been freed of that last memory. But it had followed her and she realized now that memories couldn’t be separated form one another. They would always be woven together in a garland that was both beautiful and withered.
She went inside to say goodbye. Jake sat on a chair in his room, alone, reading.
“What are you reading?” she asked from the doorway.
“Nothing,” he mumbled.
“Is that what the book is called?” she asked.
He rolled his eyes at her with all the cynical wisdom of a ten-year-old.
She felt an urge to hug him but resisted. He would probably think her weird. She wondered if he knew what a dangerous place the world was. She wondered if he would be interested in her memories of Calcutta. But he ignored her and went back to his book.
Monica left the hundred-year-old house without James and walked slowly home through the darkness. Crickets chirped all around her and the cold air bit into her skin. It was autumn in Calcutta and autumn here in this sleepy college town in Michigan. Sharat. Fall. Different names, different temperatures, different trees. But everywhere, it was the season between seasons, the one that tried vainly to hold on to summer but was unable to stop hurtling towards winter.
Oindrila Mukherjee is an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University. She was the creative writing fellow in fiction at Emory University from 2009 to 2011. Her work has appeared most recently in the Greensboro Review, Salon, The Oxford Anthology of Indian Voices, Aster(ix), Indian Voices, and elsewhere. She has a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. She serves as a fiction editor for the Singapore-based literary journal Kitaab. A version of this story appeared in translation in Bengali in Femina Bangla (Calcutta) in September 2013.