The Travels and Travails of Anushtup Chatterjee
Anushtup Chatterjee is thirty-two years old.
He hates his mother. His job is a dead end. And his girlfriend has left him.
Then one silent moonlit night, he wakes up in a deserted field in the middle of nowhere, with no recollection of where he is or how he got there. His wallet is gone. So is his cell phone.
He is not alone though.
There is another man there, a stranger with a gentle voice and a humble moustache, who has something rather unbelievable to say to him.
That he, Anushtup Chatterjee, has already died.
Mysterious and poignant, Arnab Ray’s latest work of fiction Yatrik (Westland; Rs 295) is a story about hope and aspiration, love and regret, of the choices we make and those that life makes for us.
Here’s an excerpt:
Then came the season of Durga Puja, releasing, as it does every year, spores that transform ordinary Bengalis into large shopping bags with legs and elbows, pushing, shoving and kicking their way through any place that sells stuff. It was a busy time for Anushtup. Wisdom Software had shut shop in August, which meant he was now working full-time as a store clerk. Poonam had stopped coming to the store, and he didn’t know whether that was for the good or bad, but he did splurge on a nice Allen Solly shirt, a pair of fake Levi’s jeans, because the real ones were too ex- pensive, and a fawn-coloured kurta, which he felt was rather fashionable, not that he had any sense for these things. Things always got hectic around this time in Atulya-da’s ward, and this year, one of the pandal workers fell off the bamboo scaffolding and broke his hip bone. So between stocking books and cards and trying to catch the attention of reluctant doctors at the government hospital, Anushtup had little time for sitting at his table and contemplating what-ifs.
Anushtup had planned to spend the four days of Puja the same way he did every year—one afternoon lunch with Ma, and on the rest of the days, a bit of reading, a bit of drinking and a lot of walking, with only his cigarettes for company. This time though, on Ashtami, the employees at the mall, not just from his store but from all the stores on the ground floor, had planned to meet at the Maddox Square pandal at seven in the eve- ning. And though this was absolutely not worth looking forward to, he knew that he needed to be in attendance, just for the sake of appearing to be agreeable. An hour or two of simulated enthusiasm, three fake laughs and four back slaps later, he would slip away, or at least that was what he had thought he would do.
Things were proceeding according to plan, and since Payal from the perfumes department at Couture was there in the group, all the other men essentially talked to her without really saying anything, in the way that men trying to make an impression do, which suited Anushtup just fine because he could stay mostly silent and go unnoticed. After some time, sooner than he had thought it would be, Anushtup decided he had had enough of the desultory conversation. Making an excuse of a prior appointment, he moved away from the clump of wooden chairs where the group were seated, and walked over to the other side of the pandal, looking for the nearest exit. Then, realizing he had not even once looked at the idol of the Goddess, he turned back.
Eight-thirty in the evening and they were packed in at Maddox Square, shoulder to shoulder, men wrapped in elaborately ornate purple and red kurtas, glitteringly bejewelled women marinated in make-up, little beggar children scurrying around, hunting for discarded paper plates, smoke from the evening aarati curling up in hazy columns, and behind the wall of voices, laughter, affected South Calcutta accents, clangs and drum beats, stood Goddess Durga and her sons and daughters, hardened in clay and colour, beautiful yet silent, gazing placidly back at the human folly in front.
Anushtup chuckled to himself, glanced at his watch and, why he never did know, looked up one more time. And there she was. White salwar kameez and black leather purse, hair all bouncy as they showed in the shampoo ads, a wisp of a dream gliding through the land of the real. And then, again he did not know why, she turned to the right, looking in his direction. A smile lit up her face and he immediately sensed two things— that he too was smiling and that he would never ever forget this instant. She raised her hand and at first Anushtup felt she was waving at him but before he could wave back, he realized she was telling him to stay where he was. She said some- thing to the two girls who were with her, one of them looked in the direction of Anushtup, giggled and then turned away, which made him feel very conscious, wondering if the fawn kurta had been a bad choice. Then she came towards him and he moved towards her, and he saw that she was slightly out of breath and so was he.
‘Thank God, I caught you before you left,’ she said, with a breath of relief. ‘I asked them where you were and they said I had just missed you.’
‘Oh I didn’t know they had invited you too,’ Anushtup said. The fragrance of her perfume, light yet assertive, was intoxicating.
‘I heard everyone was coming here to Maddox Square. I was out with my cousins, so I thought I would drop by and say hi.’ She paused, looked around and said, ‘Are you waiting to meet someone?’
‘No. I was just leaving.’
‘So soon? I thought you guys just got here.’
‘We have been here for an hour already,’ Anushtup said, nervously adjusting the sleeves of his kurta.
‘Oh I am sorry, I guess I am keeping you from something,’ said Poonam apologetically, and Anushtup realized that she had interpreted his sleeve adjusting as a casual glance at the watch.
‘No. No,’ he said alarmed,‘I really have nothing to do now.’
‘But they said…’
‘I lied.’ He shrugged,‘I needed to get away.’ ‘That’s what I figured,’ she said with a smile.
‘I am guessing none of them were into Aldous Huxley.’
‘More Shahrukh Khan I would say’, and Anushtup felt relaxed, but only for a second, because then she said, ‘Since you don’t have anything to do, and I don’t have anything to do, why don’t we do nothing together?’
Anushtup had had a cup of tea a few hours ago and nothing after that, and right now, he felt it gurgling up his throat, hot as if he had just had it.
‘That came out a bit corny,’ she said sheepishly. Anushtup quickly tried to defuse the situation. ‘Not at all. You should wait till I get started. I am the king of PJs.’ He needed to take charge now, he decided, and stop acting like a teenager, with words sticking to the palate of his mouth like soggy bread. ‘You and me, pandal hopping. Yes. That would be nice.’ Now, he wondered if the pointed ‘you and me’, excluding her cousins, had been a bit over the line.
‘But wait, first let me call home,’ she said, fishing the cell phone out of her bag in one swift mo- tion. She called her cousin and told her to take the car back. Then she called her driver, told him to take the cousins around for now, and that she would call him once she was done.
‘Won’t your family be worried?’ Anushtup found himself asking, after the phone had been disconnected and ensconced in the purse as before.
‘They can’t be worried any more than they always are. So no harm done,’she said with an impish grin. So they set off, out from Maddox Square, past the milling masses, talking, as they always did, of books. They pushed through the crowd at Mandeville Gardens, looking up at the lights, and then walked through Singhi Park, where Poonam caught her heel in a crack in the pavement and nearly twisted her ankle.
Then while they were walking down Rashbehari Avenue on the way to Ballygunge Cultural, Poonam suddenly said, ‘That’s it. No more book talk. Now tell me your story.’
Anushtup mumbled, with what he thought was a casual shrug,‘I don’t have one to tell.’
Poonam said, ‘Sure you do. So do I and that man there in that parrot-green shirt and that cute grandma holding a yellow gas balloon. Stories with loose ends and half-developed characters and abrupt endings.’ Anushtup challenged her gently,‘But even if I have a story, why should I tell that to you?’ She looked up at him and said, ‘Because sometimes the telling of a story becomes a story in itself.’
Anushtup told his story, first just a little and then a little more, just the bare essentials, where he stayed, which school he went to, figuring that by the time they reached Ballygunge Cultural, the focus of the conversation would have shifted. Seeing that it had not, Anushtup asked,‘Do you want to get something to eat?’ And just as the words came out of his mouth, he wondered that it may have been impolite not to have asked for so long. She said,‘And about time too. I am famished.’
‘We could walk back a little and go to Junior Brothers,’Anushtup said, trying to remember what other vegetarian places were there in the area. She raised one eyebrow, ‘Why vegetarian? Because I am Marwari, I can’t have non-veg?’Anushtup remembered the whole Marwaris-reading-books thing and said, ‘No, no, it’s not that. When we went out that day with the team, you ordered only vegetarian. So I thought…’
She stomped her heel playfully on the asphalt, ‘Mutton roll. Nothing else will do.’
Then she added, as an explanation, ‘Since everyone is strictly vegetarian at home, I am strictly non-veg outside. Unless I am with a lot of people, when again I have to pretend to be a good little girl.’
Anushtup said, ‘Mutton roll we can get at Deshapriya Park, but it will be street food.’
She said, rolling her eyes, ‘Of course street food. Why do you think that will be a problem?’
Anushtup said,‘I didn’t think of you as the street- food-mutton-roll-type.’
Poonam flicked away a fringe of hair, and Anushtup noticed how she did that from time to time with the hair that fell fo ward onto her forehead every now and then, and she immediately adjusted the shoulder strap of her purse, all together in a reflex action, and said, ‘So what type do you think I am?’
Anushtup said defensively, ‘You know what I mean.’ She said,‘Not really, I don’t.’
He wondered if he had offended her somehow and while he was fumbling with what he would say, her face that had clouded over seemed to clear, and she patted him on the shoulder. ‘It’s okay. I get your point.’
The rhythm of their words had been broken though and they walked in silence till they reached Deshapriya Park. It was only once she started eating her mutton roll with satisfied Mmmm’s alternating with long sips of her Pepsi that the conversation resumed in right earnest.
‘So that’s your story?’ she asked, using a handkerchief to wipe the oil dribbling down her fingers.
‘Yes. As I said, not really much to say. And by the way, you should have really let me pay for the food.’
They were standing with a crowd of hungry and impatient and noisy people in front of a bro- ken-down food trolley with a faded sign that said, ‘Uncle and Nephew’s Snack Bar’, with the uncle (or was it the nephew) furiously scraping the giant black tava with a stainless steel ladle, enveloped by a fog of smoke, heat, sweat and sizzle, rolling the egg into the bread with an exaggerated flourish.
Anushtup was used to people, a lot of them in a small place, but today, for some reason, he felt slightly out of breath.
‘Don’t worry. I won’t let you off without buying me ice cream. By the way, don’t take me to be an idiot. Ok? There’s much you didn’t tell me about yourself.’ She said this accusingly, making a gurgling sound as she sucked out the last few drops from her bottle.
‘I don’t know. From the first day I saw you, it struck me that somehow you just don’t seem to be the type that works at a store. And by type, you know what I mean. There is a story here, a big story I am not getting.’
Anushtup grunted, ‘I wish I knew that story myself.’
Poonam once again did a quick hair-and-strap adjust.‘ So where next?’
‘We could go to Mudiali from here, it’s a bit of a walk though.’
‘I am game,’ she said eagerly, throwing the oil-drenched roll wrapper into a makeshift waste basket.
‘But this time, you tell me a story,’ Anushtup said, half-teasingly, but only because he wanted to avoid talking about himself.
‘You are right, I owe you one. Don’t I?’ ‘I think you do.’
‘Are you okay with stories that are a bit… I don’t know… theatric?’
He nodded.‘Sure, as long as they are well told.
Arnab Ray’s Yatrik (published by Westland) is now available at all premier bookstores and online retailers. Here is a link from where you can buy the ebook.