They moved in around the corner, into the double storied house, the one no one wanted to move into. The couple was married, but his parents never once set foot inside. In fact, it was her father that bought the house for them, right opposite his own duplex. The Jor Bagh Association would never usually approve a dysfunctional unit like theirs, but they made an except this time around. There were two sons in this equation, one who went to Yale, the other still in school, but both seemed to be reasonable young men. Ashish and Akhil, Ashish with the round Harry Potter glasses and Akhil with the fuzzy caterpillar eyebrows. It was presumed that the sons would receive their own floors when the time came, leaving the ground floor for their parents. It would remove builders from the question, eliminating the anxiety of shoebox apartments and the unknown tenants that would occupy them. And, so, they made the move, with U-Haul trucks that moved their lives from Kolkata to New Delhi.
The house is all them, every inch of it, but at same time, it’s none of them. They struggle to remember, they struggle to forget. What was life before this, what will life be now? Their lives, all entangled, their voices merging with one another, all becoming one. They can’t quite pinpoint who they are or where they might be going, but they try their hardest with all the fragments to piece their family back together.
A fish to a Bengali is his soul. Some are Rohus, delicacies that cannot be tasted often, but the sweetness lingers and cannot be forgotten. They are to be savoured, cut into small pieces so the fattiness does not go away. Others are Pomphrets, everyday pleasures that can be enjoyed often, yet have to be consumed in moderation. They are to be devoured, fried in enough oil so the body maintains its shape. Everyone wants to be a Rohu or a Pomphret, but land up as unnamed fish swimming in curry. They all become machha, a mass of silver scales that no one bothers to name. Tossed and turned, priced lower and lower, until sold.
I cannot stand the smell of fish, even though I live in the land of fish with people who live for fish. My mother claims that it is because we are Punjabi, our ancestors are from Lahore, our relatives reside in New Delhi. That might be the case, but I have never been to school outside Calcutta. St. Xavier’s, an institution that intends to turn boys into young men, a Catholic landmark of the community. Surrounded by fathers that beat my knuckles until they were blue, I never learnt to appreciate the strength of desi daaru or the enthusiasm of bhangra. I became accustomed to living by the book, ruled by the rules that had been set for me. Still, there was something fishy about fish, so much so that compelled me to live on edge. At Lake Market, where the fish carcasses hang to dry, my mother buys our weekly rotation. Clothespin on nose, twisted over my glasses, I accompany her, not to fish watch and ogle as the half alive ones flop around, but to carry her filets back in plastic bags.
“Did you go to the fish market with mom after school today? You weren’t home when I got back from practice.”
“Tried but the pin wasn’t cutting it. I might just need to invest in one of those Spiderman masks, you know the ones they sell at Bara Bazaar, all smiley and everything.”
“You’re an idiot, you know that, right? With a mask, you won’t be able to hide it. Everyone will see you and run.”
“At least I won’t gag. With that fish smell I was so bloody sick, I couldn’t even grab a bite. I’m starving now. Did mom leave anything in the fridge?
“There’s cake, there’s always cake, you know that.”
“Only when you don’t finish it.”
She’s the only woman in our house, she’s doesn’t even reach a full five feet, but we call her Hitler anyway. It’s not normal to call your mother the same name as the most infamous dictator, and the two of us know that better than anyone, but we still do it. Not in front of her face, obviously, she’d go red and flare up and beat us worse than the fathers at school. My own father would stand there, mute, like a fish on the hook that can’t quite catch its breath. He’s never really been one for words anyways.
She only leaves home for the fish, otherwise, she’s always patrolling the shoebox apartment. Our very own local chowkidar, if fish didn’t make me hurl, then the raw eggs in milk she forced down our throats would. Drink up, Akhil and Ashish, and down the hatch it goes. I am convinced she is attempting to poison us with salmonella but I’ll never bring it up, not even to my younger brother.
I drink and drink until I imagine little chickens swimming at the pit of my stomach.
“Boys, downstairs, it’s time to go play.”
I slide into the elevator before Akhil has the chance, glasses on the edge of my nose, notes for the exam in my hand. I must go play, as I always do, even though I am now in middle school and young boys are no longer forced to play. Hitler insists, as she always does, insisting that we will study better if we play.
It is only when I get to ground floor, ready to jump on the field, that the other boys begin to laugh at me and I realise that I am only wearing a single shoe.
They leave town alone for the first time when I am in grade ten. It’s only for the weekend, they must go to Delhi for a wedding, but they shall return soon. Akhil is far ahead on his homework, so am I, but I have exams to tend after. I am not to have anyone over, except the maid who shall come to clean every morning. I would abide by the rules, except I have befriended three boys who live in the buildings and they will not allow it. I am to have to have a party, the party of the year, even though I have never attended one before.
That night, I run on Kingfisher and Bacardi and the world spins for me. I stumble into my room, fumbling for my textbook, so I can cram one last time before the exam. The words swim in my spectacles, taunting me, as the history of India runs further and further away from me. Before I can argue, I get pulled out of my room for another round. I cross my fingers behind my back, hoping Christ will send the fathers the message.
My head is pounding when I wake up, I rush to write my paper, and I fear the worst. Perhaps it will be under an A this time. Maybe even a B. The paper is returned to me the next day, with full marks, and a note in the margin mentioning that I must work on my handwriting.
I have been accepted to Yale, only my mother is far more excited than I am. Hitler clomps around the house in her high heels, waving my acceptance in front of my father and Akhil.
“Just look, just look at it. Yale, he’s actually going, can you believe it? A full scholarship to the best education in the world. All because of me.”
No one responds to Hitler, as we usually do, but she decides to make a cheesecake for us all anyway. When no one is watching, I go into the kitchen and stand next to her, swirling the batter around. She shoves the spoon in my mouth, as she used to when I was younger, only I have grown to appreciate the blueberry topping now.
We eat the cheesecake with our tea that day, all four of us squished together on the eggshell coloured sofa. We never have cheesecake in that house again.
The house in Delhi is bigger, the walls are thinner, and I can only visit once a year. They say Akhil is turning to a mini me, replacing me in my absence, burying his nose in every book he can find. I’m not sure about that, I don’t see him nearly enough to draw any conclusions, but I do know that New Haven is changing me.
I had fish and chips in the dining hall last week. I didn’t clench my nostrils at the smell. I didn’t back away at the taste. I went back again for another round, this time with a beer from the local convenience store bought with my fake Colorado license. My father never ate fish and chips without a pint of beer on the side.
I ironed my shirt in the laundry room for my interview this morning. I barely ever remember to wear the same shoes, let alone a pressed outfit. I methodically sprayed the water on the wrinkled cloth, before flattening every inch with steam. My mother never left the house with a crumpled shirt on.
I waved to an attractive stranger in the hallway before class. I usually don’t make eye contact with women, but when I do, she locks eyes with me. She tells me to sit next to her, flashing me smiles every other second, whilst I listen to the lecture. My brother never shied from making a move on a pretty girl.
I return to Delhi like any homesick Indian does. After years of college and business school and investment banking, I am ready to finally be home. Except home is no longer home.
I cannot look out of my window and see tiny people arguing over tiny fish and feel larger than life for just one second.
I hear the neighbour fight with her husband over how he overpaid for the chicken and I smile whilst covering my ears. My parents and Akhil roll their eyes and burst into laughter.
We are drifting, all of us are. My father is resigning from his accountancy job, my mother has stopped dying her hair, and my brother is leaving for graduate school. The house is full of voices, of the people we used to be, of the people we have become.
We are common fish, all of us are, diced up into a million little pieces. We won’t ever come back together but we’ll find beauty in the fragments.