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‘The plangent silence of the shadowy bedroom’

An extract from Siddharth Singh’s debut novel, a work that is in the noblest vein of the vast majority of Indian fiction — loquacious, verbose, ornate, redolent of spice, obsessed with tradition.

Siddharth Singh  1st Apr 2012

Illustration by Dev Kabir Malik Design

ut Surya, you know what this means, don't you?"

Katyayini's sibilant voice, its gentle lisp reverberating in the plangent silence of the shadowy bedroom, grated against Surya's ears. Like a troublesome case of tinnitus, the emphatic self-assured conviction of her voice pounded against the innards of his soul like an Onam boat race drummer keeping time. With the slow, exact precision of a neurosurgeon, Katyayini was dextrously slicing her way through the fragile meninges of his persona to dig at the hypothalamus of his deepest, darkest, most well preserved secrets.

"No I don't, Katyayini, and frankly, I don't care what you think all this might mean. Let's just drop the topic." Like a sniper zooming in on a target in a Sarajevo square, Surya's focus was intent on maintaining the remote disdain in his voice, not allowing the hysteria that he could feel simmering underneath the surface to bubble over like a pot of milk left unwatched.

"Surya, baba, but I don't get it. You don't like watching Bollywood movies. Okay, theek hai, fine. But you also don't like eating my food. What's the matter? Is my food not good enough? Do I not cook as well as your mother? Is that it?"

Surya was struggling to keep his breathing even. Even the mention of his mother's cooking provoked the strangest reaction in his heart. When walking through the limpid streets of Murray Hill, he made it a point to avoid the Indian restaurants; who could tell what unhappy thoughts the familiar, overwhelming smells of cardamom and cumin, turmeric and mustard would ignite inside him? For too long had he rejected all Indian food, refusing to connect the fragrant cuisine and those brutalised memories he kept suppressed. Resuscitating those well-entombed recollections led straight to insanity.

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"See, I know it. Now when I ask, you don't answer. It's not that you don't like my food. Don't you think I can't see how you enjoy my sambhar? Even though I'm Bengali, and we don't cook sambhar, I learnt; just for you. But you toh can't even acknowledge how much you enjoy it. Forget me, you can't even accept it yourself."

Katyayini’s words were stirring deep, somnambulant emotions within him, and he was gravely troubled by what was emerging from the stormy waters of his memory like a snake emerges from its lair. He could almost hear them now, those sounds that he had spent years suffocating like a mother drowning another unwanted daughter.

Surya climbed out of the bed, now redolent with the stale yet tantalising aroma of sweat and semen, to stand by the window. Lighting a cigarette, he stared out at the city. Katyayini's words were stirring deep, somnambulant emotions within him, and he was gravely troubled by what was emerging from the stormy waters of his memory like a snake emerges from its lair. He could almost hear them now, those sounds that he had spent years suffocating like a mother drowning another unwanted daughter. But with each word, Katyayini was reviving them; each sentence throwing another shovel of dirt out of the grave as she exhumed his past like a merciless grave robber.

"Your absolute rejection of Indian movies is just another attempt to walk away from your heritage. Forget Bollywood; you toh won't even watch Satyajit Ray! Can't you see? By rejecting everything that make you Indian, you have turned into one of those rootless immigrants who don't belong anywhere. You want to be white, so desperately you want that. But you're not. And the harder you try, the more you try to fit in with those white friends of yours, you only separate yourself from your true roots.

"Surya, oh my Surya, you know what you've become? You've become a coconut."

Surya whirled around on his heel, his limp penis thwacking against his thigh, so forceful was the momentum of his turn. The cigarette, still glowing in the faint darkness, shone against the wood floor where it had fallen in his sudden pivot, threateningly close to the white shag rug. Katyayini continued talking, unaware or uncaring of the sudden change in his demeanour. Her words had finally unearthed the demon he had kept so well buried, bringing back all the memories of that night so many years ago, when he had been a wiry sixteen year old in a semi-detached house in Menlo Park.

A strange rushing noise, like the roar of the monsoon sea as it raged against the Kerala coastline, filled his ears, drowning out Katyayini's words as easily as they would a poor fisherman out to earn his catch. Surya was thrown back to that night when his father, in a drunken rage, had pinned Surya to the ground, beating him with his large engineer's fists whilst alternately shoving desiccated coconut into Surya's mouth.

"Eat, goddamn you, eat! You can't be any son of mine if you're allergic to coconut. What kind of Nair are you?! Allergic? All this damn American stupidity! WHY DON'T YOU EAT, YOU USELESS BOY?!"

Again and again, Surya had tried to spit out the coconut, his skin already breaking out into hives as his body had rebelled against the auspicious fruit that was poison to it. Again and again, his father had kept prying Surya's jaw open to force more handfuls of the toxic coconut into his mouth. Finally, unable to make Surya swallow, he had resorted to choking the boy.

Surya's last memory of that night was passing out with his father's hands around his throat, his mother's terrified weeping face in the background as she had ineffectually clutched at his father's hands. His eyes caught the glimpse of her gold bangles as she tried to wrench his father away from Surya, their clinking oddly loud in the silence of the room.

 
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