by Rituparna Roy
Nobody had told her about the Historisch Museum at Spui; Ruplekha had casually walked into it while trying to locate an English bookstore.
She had known she would not have much time on her hands today after their appointment with the registration lawyer. ‘No museum today’, she decided that morning. It was an unwritten rule with her: if she could not devote an entire day to a single museum, she did not visit one, for there was always so much to see and read. That was the lesson she had learnt at the National Gallery and the British Museum in London last year. She was thus prepared when she visited the Rijks and Van Gogh museums the previous two days, barely a week after reaching Amsterdam. She had a great experience, devouring the Dutch masterpieces, taking copious notes, and at times sitting down for a break to contemplate what she had seen.
Rion, her husband liked the outdoors and would much rather fish at Texel Island during the weekend or photograph the famed tulips at Keukenhof or sunbathe on Scheveningen Beach in The Hague, than admire the art in the museums. ‘I’m not drawn to art. You know that,’ he told her in that no-nonsense voice of his, pre-empting an argument, when she had insisted two days ago that they go to the Van Gogh museum together that weekend.
It was mid-May. The tulips were no longer in bloom, but drenched in the spring sunshine, the Netherlands looked beautiful. The timing was also perfect for Ruplekha – for it was 2006, Rembrandt’s 400th birth anniversary, and all Netherlands was awash with special exhibitions on him. The best collection of Rembrandt’s art was at the Rijksmuseum, of course, but somehow she ended up being more drawn to Vermeer’s stills.
In the Van Gogh Museum, Lekha admired not only the artist’s own works but also the paintings that Van Gogh himself admired – paintings of everyday life. Not the stills of fruits and flowers, the mere decorative embellishments of elite life, but the representations of the everyday activities of ordinary people, especially by Jozef Israëls.
Amsterdam had 37 museums, the travel guides proclaimed – and in this first week, Ruplekha had managed to visit only two. She marked three more in a brochure for the following week while having her breakfast that morning.
‘The way you are going, you’ll finish everything in five weeks, Madame’, her husband joked. ‘What will you do for the rest of the year?’
‘Some of them are very difficult to track…’
‘There are two maps of the city lying around. Why don’t you look them up?’
‘You know how bad I’m with maps… anyways, I’m going to the more famous ones first, then…’
‘No, you’re going only to those that fall on Tram Lijn 5’s route – because you love that route.’
These were moments Ruplekha both loved and hated – she liked the fact that her husband knew her so well but hated being so utterly predictable. She shared everything with him, and after her first tram ride, had raved about it. She had simply loved that ride from Amstelveen Binnenhof to Amsterdam Centraal, and 20 minutes into it, as the tram left the suburbs and entered the city, she had instantly fallen in love with it.
She was delighted to know that the two most important museums of the city were only walking distance from each other, at two ends of a public park, quite appropriately named Museumplein. And then she got the even better news that all the major English bookshops of the city were clustered around Spui just a few stops away from Museumplein on tram route 5. It was these English bookshops that she had gone to visit today.
Ruplekha had been restless ever since she came to Amsterdam. She had liked the museum visits the previous two days but they could not take her restlessness away. So today. when she had to decide on something other than a museum, she thought of a bookshop. She badly needed to buy something gripping and get hooked onto it. It was an old therapy – whenever she wanted to still her mind, she resorted to a book. She only hoped that it would still work. For, she had not been quite herself the past few months; she felt unusually gloomy and depressed, which was not a familiar condition with her. She knew the reason, of course, but was unable to do anything about it. It was this new posting of Rion’s that was bugging her – for this, she had had to leave London, a city she had come to love and had felt comfortable in.
She longed to settle down in one place at least for a few years. She was tired of the hop-skip-jump that seemed to characterize their married life. When they got married, Rion was already slated to go to Singapore, but it got delayed by two months – and, fortunately, Lekha got to stay in Kolkata for some time. In Singapore, they stayed for a brief ten months, followed by London for a year. When they moved to London, Rion had said it was for three years, and they even bought a flat against everybody’s advice. But then he was suddenly shifted to a new project and asked to ‘relocate’ to the Netherlands.
It was easy for Rion to move because Lekha did not have a career of her own – was, as they said, “only a housewife”, with no official schedule to stamp the importance of her time or routine. But it was never easy for Lekha. Most of the people back home did not understand this, though. Her envious relatives (and even a few friends) did not understand that life with a software consultant was not all glitter and glamour, though Lekha did get to see more places than they did. Indeed, in the two years of her marriage, she had been to some of the major capitals of the world. But after the initial excitement of being in a new place and getting to see things unfamiliar, it all felt so lonely and boring – save for the shopping and the museums.
In her very first trip abroad to Singapore, Ruplekha had gone overboard, splurging a fortune on buying souvenirs for all her dear ones as if she were doing it for the last time in her life. In London, however, she had to check herself. For one, she could afford far less with the British Pound. Besides, she fell in love with the museums, and began to enjoy visiting them so much that she actually forgot shopping for a while (except for the mandatory guide books from the museum-shops). At first, she wished she had a friend with her. She particularly missed Saheli with whom she had bonded in Singapore, and Rina, with whom she had hit it off on their very first meeting in London, but who had left for Dubai just two months later. Soon, she embraced the idea that these things were best enjoyed in solitude. It was the only consolation that she could give herself to suit the reality of her life. For friendships came her way but did not last. How could they? Rion and she were perpetually mobile, and the friendships – despite emails and chats and sms and all the new devices of the modern “well-connected” world – failed to move with them.
She remembered what her mentor, Prof. Kalyani Sen, had told her when Lekha went to invite her for the wedding: ‘No matter where you go, Ruplekha, there will always be certain constants in life, you know – pen and paper… or for that matter, water-colours…,’ she had added with a wink, ‘are plentifully available anywhere in the world; so are news-stalls, bookstores and libraries… though perhaps not plentifully everywhere, and not always in the language you want them in. And especially, for your generation, if you just have a computer and internet at home, which I am sure you will, well… you will always be connected to the world. Besides, a university degree can always happen later in life.’
These words were meant to console Lekha, for Prof. Sen knew all too well the circumstances of her marriage.
Ruplekha’s marriage had been hastily arranged to honour the wishes of her dying mother, Chhanda, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer just after Lekha’s graduation. Ruplekha had been a good student throughout school and college, but never outstanding enough to fuel the ambitions of her parents. And she had none of her own. In fact, she was a bit of an exception among her friends, lacking what they called drive. Unlike most of them, she had no set plans for the future, and did all that she did simply because she liked doing it, not because she wanted to make a career out of it. She took up History at Lady Brabourne College in Kolkata because she loved it more than any other subject; she learnt Rabindrasangeet at Gitobitan, Kolkata’s famed music academy, because she loved singing and because Rabindranath Tagore’s compositions afforded the best creative combination that she could ask for – poetry and music. And she drew – mostly pencil sketches and water colours – because she was inexorably attracted to colour and form. So, whenever she was asked (and she was frequently), ‘What would you like to do in life?’ she would smilingly reply, ‘Don’t know, but I can tell you what I like doing’, and then enumerate her interests.
Lekha’s lack of drive, notwithstanding, it was understood and accepted by her parents that she would pursue her Masters in History. Chhanda had rejected a few marriage proposals that came for her daughter, not wishing to disturb Ruplekha, and confident that she would herself find a good match later on. But now with Chhanda’s cancer, she did not wish to lose any time. She promptly got back to her sister about a boy that the latter had proposed for Ruplekha a few months back – her husband’s colleague’s son – whose profile Chhanda had really liked.
The boy in question was Rion Sengupta, the only son of a lawyer father and teacher mother. For the few times that Ruplekha and Rion dated, during the three months of their official engagement, the time allotted to them by their parents for “getting to know each other”, she found him to be handsome, well-mannered, and with a good sense of humour – all of the attributes she liked. And of course, he was well educated. He would have been out of the reckoning otherwise. He was a Civil Engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, after which he took a degree in Financial Management from the Indian Institute of Management in Joka. This “IIT/IIM” tag was a veritable winner in the Bengali marriage market.
Both of them, however, knew that the actual match in their case was her beauty against his money – the perfect combination destined to make any set of Indian parents happy.
For a 21st century marriage, among well-to-do Indians, theirs was boringly traditional – with no thrills, no complications, no defiance to trip up the process, nothingof the sort of things that Lekha had seen happen with her friends.
There was, however, a moment of romance between them during their official courtship, and Lekha mentally consented to the marriage only after that.
Three weeks before their wedding, Rion took her out in his brand new Hyundai Santro. He had done the test-drive with his parents, but had reserved the proper ‘inauguration’ of the car for her. And the delight on his face when he came to pick her up that April afternoon was transparent to all.
They went to Nalban in Salt Lake that day but did not row or boat, just sat by the lake eating paobhaji. Soon after, it began to rain, and instead of seeking shelter in the pretty machan above the food-stall, they left. On their way back, before dropping Lekha off, Rion stopped at a place she did not know – near one of those ubiquitous parks in Salt Lake, all of which looked the same to her. She did not ask him why. All the while at Nalban, Rion had been unusually quiet, and Lekha could sense something coming. They sat in silence for a while inside the car, and then he took her hand.
‘Our wedding day is approaching, Lekha’, he began, ‘and I wanted to tell you something…’ She stiffened. She was sure this was a prologue to a long confession, and was getting ready to hear of his past loves, may be, even a present one. But before she could think any further, he said, ‘I know why you are marrying me – you want to make your parents happy, to give them some peace of mind and relieve them, at least of their worry about you. But I am not marrying you because your mother is ill.’ At this, she looked at him in surprise. He looked back, and in a voice that was soft but firm, said ‘I like your parents, but they are still strangers to me.’ Then, turning his gaze to the windshield which periodically cleared and filled with water, he continued, this time it seemed, talking more to himself than her – ‘Our families have really taken to each other… I can see that, and I do know how important this marriage is for you and your parents. But, I am not marrying you to solve your family’s problem.’ He paused for an infinitesimal second. ‘I am marrying you…’ and he looked directly into her eyes this time ‘…because I like you. Like you enough to think of you all the time, to impatiently wait for our Saturday meetings, to want to be near you, to have you with me.’ There was another pause, slightly longer this time. ‘My parents are arranging my marriage, Lekha, but I want you to know that I have chosen you.’
She did not say anything, just turned away her face to the window to hide her tears.
It was still raining outside. ‘Lekha…?’Rion asked tentatively.
Slowly untangling her hand from his, she said, ‘I want to go out.’
Stepping out of the car, she did not go anywhere – just leaned against the door, her hands behind her, and let the rain drench her. Rion came out soon after, stood right in front of Lekha, and taking her face in his palms, kissed her full on the mouth.
That now seemed so long ago to Lekha. Very often, she felt that this life – this jet-setting, mobile, continent-hopping life with Rion – was not her’s. It was not as much bad as wrong. It did not suit her. She held nothing against Rion – he was good to her; though increasingly getting more and more immersed in his work and losing a little of his humour which she had so enjoyed when they were engaged. No, it was not him… just the rhythm of their life that was not right for her. It was as if she were living out the frenetic strains of an electric guitar when all she wanted was the quiet melody of the sitar.
She felt the need to be rooted in a place; she wanted a bit of stability, a friend that remained. She also felt curiously incomplete without doing her Masters. Not that she wanted to pursue academics or anything but she did want to study further, which unfortunately Rion’s mobile career did not permit. Would never permit.
After two years of constant, unrelieved domesticity, Lekha tired of it. She often remembered her mother, now no more – how fiercely proud and protective she was of her domestic space and how happy she had always been being a housewife. Or was she really? Lekha wished she knew, wished she could discover the secret of that happiness.
But for as long as she could not, for as long as her restlessness persisted, she would trust her old therapy, Lekha decided that May morning in Amsterdam. She would fall back on books. Her own collection had not yet arrived from London. Hence she badly needed to go to a bookstore.
Spui had the three largest English bookstores in Amsterdam, Lekha knew by now – The American Book Center, Waterstones and Athenaeum Boekhandel – but Rion’s colleague had strongly recommended ABC over the others, and Lekha decided to follow his suggestion.
She had wrongly got off a stop later – at the Dam – and had to walk back to spot the store. As it turned out, she could not find it easily. She absent-mindedly entered an alley that took her away from the direction of the store. It led instead to the entrance of a building a short distance away. That building was the Amsterdams Historisch Museum, which no one had told her about.
She was so taken aback by this discovery that she forgot all about the bookstore. At the entrance of the museum, she noticed that it parted in two directions. On one side was a long corridorfull of large group portraits of 17th century Dutch traders and officials; on the other, separated by a courtyard was the main part of the museum building. It had originally been an orphanage and there were several paintings bearing testimony to that fact.
The history of the city was, of course, the museum’s chief attraction – and it told this history in a manner quite different from that of the Rijks, the Netherland’s national museum. The Rijks was imperial, officious, highlighting the grandeur of the Dutch Golden Age; but this was more a local history of the people and the place.
There were three floors to the museum – all of them narrating the intriguing history of how the Dutch built their little, enterprising country by continually reclaiming land from the sea. As Lekha meandered through the floors, she tried making mental notes of the highlights of each as she was not armed with her notebook today: ‘Groundfloor: Amsterdam’s earliest history, statues of eminent medieval Dutchmen; First Floor: engravings of old Amsterdam; Second Floor: a plan of the city dating back to the 14th century’ No wait – were the engravings on the first floor or the second? Just as she stopped in her tracks on the second floor trying to recall the detail, her eyes fell on the pottery section that formed a large semi-circle at the extreme end of the central hall. On display there were the recent findings of the Archaeological Department of the Amsterdam City Council. In 1983 – a plaque elaborated – the Department had carried out excavations at nos. 105 and 107 Warmoesstraat, which lay in one of the oldest parts of the inner city. During excavation, a wide range of earthenware pottery dating from the 14th century had been discovered.
What Lekha found most remarkable was how near-perfectly they had survived the ravages of time: the secret apparently lay in the fired clay, which, due to its comparatively non-perishable nature, preserved well over time, in the soil. Also fascinating was how the archaeologists deduced a wealth of detail about when and where the pottery was made, and how, merely from the shape and material of the objects. A popular item of the time seemed to be earthenware beer mugs from the Rhineland in Germany, several of which were on display; as were different kinds of jars, saucepans, bowls, dishes and casseroles – all used for storage, and for preparing and serving food and drink. One of the most interesting variants of these was the “pipkin”, a rounded cooking pot with three legs, with either one or two handles.
There was something arresting about these red earthenware pots and pans. Lekha could not admire them enough. Once she had seen the collections sequentially, she went and sat in a corner from where she could get a good view of the entire pottery section as a whole – and it was while looking them over again that she suddenly had an epiphany.
What was great art all about? What were the trackless centuries full of? – Mundane, everyday activities. Getting on with the business of living – eating, drinking, and working to make a living. It was amazing how many trades contributed to creating the things that made up our daily lives. Beautiful artistry and craftsmanship, all expended on making objects of utility and raising them beyond their functional roles somehow. A bowl or chalice was not just an object to eat or drink from – it said so many other things. And each remained stamped with its own story, generations or even centuries, later.
Ruplekha had been feeling weary and depressed of late. She had come to look upon her life and all that it comprised of as boring, mediocre and insignificant. But being in this museum, she realized, strangely, that her life was not worthless, after all. It gave her a new respect for what she did. She had always admired art that celebrated everyday life, but what she felt now in the presence of this medieval pottery was very different. It was immensely reassuring and liberating to know that the things – petty things – that preoccupied her had also preoccupied people all those centuries ago. That this was all there was to life, in a way. Archaeologists simply dug up other versions of the same pattern – the pattern of life on earth.
After many years, since that rain-drenched moment in Salt Lake, Ruplekha felt an unutterable lightness of being. A bell rang to announce the closure of the museum in another fifteen minutes, but she had already had her fill.
On her way out, she bought two Royal Delft mugs from the museum-shop.
Rituparna Roy hails from Kolkata, where she studied (Presidency College & Calcutta University) and taught (Basanti Devi College) English Literature before moving to the Netherlands. She lives in Amsterdam and teaches at Leiden University College The Hague. She is the author of South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh (AUP: 2010) & co-editor of the ICAS volume, Writing India Anew: Indian English Fiction 2000-2010 (AUP: 2013) – both published during her time as a postdoctoral fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden. She writes an occasional column on India for the IIAS Newsletter, and blogs about Indian cinema and her life in the Netherlands. Several of her articles and interviews of writers have appeared in The Wire.in, Scroll.in, The Punch Magazine, and Our FrontCover. Her fiction has been published online by The Punch Magazine and Lebowski Publishers.