Chapter One: Urmila
For seven years Urmila has lived away from her house in the hills. The house that she and Aniruddha built is a fading memory, but occasionally, not too often, she sees it in her mind. The images sometimes flash past and sometimes freeze, with a physicality that takes her breath away, as if she can reach out and touch them, hold them together before they scatter, Ming fragments that leave her exhausted. But she goes back to them, again and again, for that’s what the doctor has recommended: work your brain.
She sits now by the tall window overlooking the garden, exercising her mind with closed eyes, willing images into being from a past that holds clues to many of her questions. She doesn’t tell anyone about these questions, but she knows that one day she will reach a precipice, from which she will either turn back with her answers or fall over the edge. The mosaic of recollections is never constant, always shifting from house to hill to river to faces, voices, sounds, laughter, tears… They end with a single sound. Thwack! Sometimes, when she presses her fingers to her temples and squeezes her eyes tight, she can hear another sound—a voice that calls out “Umi” over and over again, from a distance she cannot fathom. She knows the voice, knows its timbre and touch. Then it fades away and she opens her moist eyes, waiting for the resonances to seep into her, caress every pore of her skin. She misses the voice so much that even its ghost would be welcome.
Aniruddha—the name that sits on her breath.
She sits still, in sunlight filtered through the stained-glass window, a red shawl draped around her shoulders, its paisley border curving over her chest and stomach, grey-flecked hair curled on her straight back. Light spreads across the window panes, touches the lines and curves of the cubist design, and splashes coloured light into the room. Beside her, on a low table, stands a Burgundy glass of wine, her only indulgence these days.
Her mind strays. She can hear Trisha move about in the kitchen, then in the study, and back to the kitchen. She hears her tiptoe into this room and part the curtains of other windows. Early evenings are usually pleasant, but today it’s still sunny and warm.
“Do you want anything, Umashi?” Trisha asks.
Urmila shakes her head and gestures for Trisha to sit with her.
As a child, Trisha devised her own name for this woman she loves as much as she loved her mother. Umashi was a convenient contraction of Urmi and mashi, doing away with the repetitive syllables and keeping only what was required. Others call her Urmi, except Aniruddha, who shortened it further to Umi. To Trisha they were the ideal couple, their goals hers to follow when she married their son, Siddharth, a possibility that was once around the corner but which has since become an illusion.
“What’s on television?” Urmila asks. She opens her eyes and looks at Trisha.
“I’ll check. Nothing entertaining today, I think.”
“News is entertainment, but they leave nothing to the imagination.”
Trisha looks askance at her as she surfs the channels, then sneaks in the question: “Do you want to listen to devotional songs?”
It’s a marker for Trisha. When the answer changes, she will know, take the next step. The doctor has told her to be alert to changes in mood, behaviour, language, habits…
They watch the news. The evening glides past; they walk to the river and back, cook, eat dinner, read, go to their rooms. Another Sunday.
Past midnight, Trisha notices the band of light under Urmila’s door. She peeps in. Urmila is at her writing table. Another ritual. Life’s little markers. Softly, she shuts the door.
Every night, before she goes to sleep, Urmila writes in her diary. Often she finds it difficult to remember everything clearly. She has to rein in her memory, remember whatever she can before she loses her grip on it. What of the memories she has already lost or given up? When she reads through her old diaries, she finds the passages undated. These days she dates each entry, records conversations, stray thoughts, glimpses, photographs, newspaper articles, experiences, absences… The clock on the bedside ticks too loudly in the night. She’s taken her sleeping pills early and is already sleepy, but she must perform this ritual. Discipline is helpful, the doctor said.
She gets up, washes her face, powders it—it always helps—then returns to the writing desk and opens a leather-jacket diary. A green tassel springs out of the cream pages.
That was the time Aniruddha quarrelled with me. He wanted a different name for our yet-to-be-born child. I was adamant about “Siddharth”—Buddha’s name before he renounced the material world. Was that what he was afraid of? That his son too would give up? Who could see the future? Nonetheless, we went ahead and argued, turned away from each other in bed and switched off the lamps on either side.
No date. Time is fluid in the pages of this diary. This was obviously referring to a time before Siddharth was born. So which year? She remembers the Emergency. She was in college, had just turned nineteen. As she leans back in her chair, the memory of that day is like a hologram playing on the undulating curtain in front of her: she had returned from her morning run, her father was getting ready for the office. The tube-making company was known for its strict timing, and he didn’t want to be a minute late. “A rupee a minute,” that’s what the factory owners had etched on the mahogany main door. She remembers seeing her father sit in the Ambassador.
The next clear image is of her mother softly crying in her bedroom. Her father hadn’t returned from the office. Over the next few days, she stayed close to her mother, telling her over and over again that nothing would happen to Baba. Her mother’s delicate, almost chiselled features were distorted with anxiety; a fine groove between her eyebrows appeared around that time and became firmly etched by the time Urmi’s father came back from jail, a wasted, irritable, bad-tempered man, the very opposite of the man who had left home that June morning two years before. She remembers little from the in-between years. What did she and Ma do? How did they manage? She remembers her father’s quick temper, Ma’s silence, Baba’s raging monologues in the face of this silence.
She and Aniruddha were different, equally matched, silent and vocal by turns. She looks at the diary’s pages fluttering before her. When did this quarrel take place? Restless but determined to unearth the date, she gets up and walks down the corridor to Trisha’s room.
Trisha adjusts the lamp’s angle, goes to the washroom, splashes water on her face, lubricates her eyes, and returns to the trestle table that she has polished and set up in a corner of her room, right under the patachitra of Krishna’s dance with the gopis under an effulgent moon.
Groggy despite the wash, she decides to have a cup of coffee. It’s possible for her to complete her notes in the morning, but procrastination is an ugly word in her dictionary. She sets an unwieldy precedent for her colleagues, who grumble about it, perhaps badmouth her too when she is not around, but it has given her responsibilities and power that they hanker for. They put down her gains to her being sanctimoniously disciplined, a conformist. She doesn’t let gossip and envy affect her; that’s not what she works for. She has no ideals about working for a specific college or university, as long as she is able to teach a class of interested students. That too is an ideal, but at least her students listen attentively to her. Economics was not her forte in school, and she cannot remember the day or year when she changed track from Industrial Psychology to Environmental Economics.
She runs her palms over her eyes, puts on her glasses again. As she bends to retrieve the folders from the bed, she notices Siddharth’s photograph. Her heart thuds with a vehemence that chokes her momentarily. She sits still, staring at the photograph, only to be jolted out of it by a knock on the door. Her mobile blinks the time—1:00 a.m. Umashi knocking at this hour! She leaps to her feet and opens the door.
“When did Rakesh Sharma go to space?” Urmila asks.
“1984,” Trisha answers on auto mode. “Why?”
Urmila notices the books scattered across the bed and floor, then the photograph of Siddharth smiling as if waiting for her.
Urmila stares at Siddharth’s photograph, trying to rearrange her thoughts. She enters the room and picks it up. Behind the photograph, a date: August, 2003. “Siddharth was in my lap the day Rakesh Sharma went to space,” she mutters.
“He must have been a year old at the time, no?”
Urmila nods slowly. She replaces the photograph on the bed and leaves.
Trisha watches her enter her room and shut the door.
Urmila picks up her diary again. Those yet-to-form days. Experiences gather dust in the mind. Draw them out. Dust them off. Fold and unfold them. Do it again and again. Pin down elusive memories. That’s the only way. It’s what she does through the long hours spent in the sun, absorbing sounds, colours, images, enabling memories through television programmes, songs on the radio, news.
She shuts her eyes. Think! she admonishes herself. But she’s sleepy, and it’s difficult to remember what happened that night between Aniruddha and her after they quarrelled. Siddharth was on his way then, still in her womb. So it was not yet 1983. Or perhaps it was, a few days, weeks, or months, maybe, before Siddharth was born.
She goes to the window and watches the amorphous shapes of the trees and shrubs in the garden. At the end of the garden, closer to the gate, she can see the pole from which Trisha has hung a bird feeder. It sways darkly in the night breeze and brings back faint images.
She was often depressed in those days, thinking of the life she would leave behind or perhaps of the new one to begin. She was frightened too, but Aniruddha didn’t notice. When Siddharth was born and the house filled up with guests, she often thought of climbing to the weather vane, swinging from it, her hair blowing in the wind, legs around the pole, one arm spread wide, the sky in her eyes. But the baby needed her and her milk, its warm tastelessness dribbling down its puckered mouth that would one day shout out from loudspeakers at street corners and call forth a storm. The storm would spiral up the hill and into the garden, where his father dozed in the warm evening, or was it afternoon, when his head lolled to one side and the book fell off his chest. The chopper that killed him had been meant for his son. Was it a chopper? No, a spade. Blunt and hard. Or was it something else? Something split open Aniruddha’s head that day.
Everybody blamed Siddharth and his relentless sons-of-the-soil agitation for this tragedy. “It wasn’t me they were looking for. My life meant nothing to them. Some bloody fuckup!” He had yelled the last words. Urmila is surprised by how distinctly she hears those words now. Siddharth repeated them as if on a loop that he had allowed to spin out of control. The flames of the funeral pyre leaped high into the sky, crackling, scattering the embers. As he went around his father’s pyre, water trickling out of the clay pot on his shoulder, what was Siddharth thinking, renouncing? Under her feet, as she watched him, a world was shifting, changing shape, position, definition, description.
Behind her, the pages flutter noisily under the fan. She returns to them, willing memory. “Try!” She mutters. Collect the strands together, sharpen the brain, fill the gaps. What better leash on receding memory?
She turns to another page.
Write. About what? Do you want to write? When was the last time that you thought clearly, thought through? As if thoughts have a sequence. Perhaps you stopped thinking when you became wife, mother, widow…
She gets out of the chair, walks restlessly around the room, returns to her chair, and picks up the pen:
Get yourself together. Why should memory control your life? Get a grip, like Ma did. Quietly. When Baba was angry, she stood between the two of you. Frail, slight, but she couldn’t be blown away, not even when Baba shouted “Blast!”—his retort when things didn’t go his way.
How is it you remember those days? Dredge life from that far back?
Standing under the cherry blossoms. Pink-white on my hair, on Aniruddha’s shoulders. A blossom trembling on his back. Such a broad back. Was Siddharth with us?
There’s a crater in your mind. These images too will sink into that crater one day.
The letters and words crawl away from her; she loses control over their form. The pen drops from her fingers, and her head sinks onto the diary.
When Trisha opens the door in the morning, she finds Urmila asleep at the table.
* * *
Urmi gets a call from Aditya one afternoon, just as she switches on the television.
As she hangs up afterward, an old image creeps in upon her: her mother, wearing a simple Tangail saree, purse in hand, walking briskly down the lane to the neighbour’s house. There was a single telephone connection in the neighbourhood, and Mr. Chowdhury was its proud owner. Once a week, neighbours would troop into his house for much-anticipated phone calls, to make or receive. Throughout the time her father was in jail, Urmi’s mother would visit this neighbour’s house every Sunday, at sharp 11 in the morning.
“Whose phone call do you expect, Ma?” Urmi once asked her.
“Is he allowed to call?” Then she slipped in the question that was uppermost in her mind: “Why is he in jail?”
“No reason,” her mother said. Then, “I’ll forget things about him if I don’t hear his voice.”
Later, months after her father returned home, a man entirely different from the one who had left his house that morning in 1975, her mother told her, “I can’t remember how he was.” That was the most pathetic, the most poignant thing Urmi ever heard her mother say.
Aditya’s voice over the phone, floating across the years, revives a part of her life that she has pushed away into non-existence, a chasm of time that she’s forgotten to span. A decade? Is that it? But a decade has many segments to it. In which segments did Aditya forget her, then remember again? Aditya, Urmila, Aniruddha—friends for life, she safely ensconced between the two men, a past and a present. She can’t recall all of the past, but what she does remember leaves her smiling. Like the time Aditya slouched on the grass, reading Pushkin to her from the book he’d given her, compelling her eventually to love the poet whose words poured from his lips to her ears with a pang, despite the poet’s restraint.
She sits on the bed, cross-legged, absent-mindedly hugging the saree she was folding, feeling its softness between a thumb and forefinger. Complementarity and completeness. Aditya complemented her; Aniruddha made her feel complete. But she failed at explaining this to Aditya. She hurt him, though their friendship continued. The two men were alike, but there was an extra spark in Aniruddha. She tried to check herself, told herself that she’d given hopes to Aditya, that loyalty was paramount to her; yet in the end all that mattered was the melting, dissolving, evaporating essence she became when she was with Aniruddha, the way she felt till the last day he breathed and then didn’t breathe again. She too hasn’t breathed since then.
It’s evening when Aditya pushes open the gate to her house and garden. She watches him walk towards her, not knowing how to bridge time, how to greet him, what to say that would accommodate all that has transpired between Aniruddha’s sudden death and Aditya’s unexpected arrival. She stands up as he approaches, picks up a book from the table, and holds it so that she doesn’t have to embrace or shake hands or do any of the things old friends do when they meet.
They talk intermittently, letting silence interweave their words, filling in the gaps of each other’s lives. Much of what they talk about is confusing, puzzling. She shifts constantly between the past and the present, facts and stories, Aniruddha and Aditya. She finds it difficult to focus, find the correct memories, even the words for them. This has not happened before.
When Aditya asks her about Aniruddha’s death, she tells him the bare details, letting him prod, giving her time to think.
“Didn’t Siddharth know about the threat to his life?”
“Siddharth should have known, but it was a blood rite. Somebody had to take the fall.”
Urmila doesn’t tell him that she wished differently that afternoon, but that Aniruddha was adamant about sitting out in the afternoon breeze. She remembers flinging the flowers from her hair onto the bed, their petals, stems, pollen forming erratic patterns. That afternoon, the two of them had been unexpectedly left to themselves. She had waited a long time for this quiet companionship, but Aniruddha laughed at her “middle-age blues.” Middle-age! She didn’t feel a day older than thirty. Her hair was still strong and black, her limbs supple. He wouldn’t be able to stay away, she was sure, for he had breathed in her body’s fragrance, buried his face in her jasmine-fragrant hair, rubbed his mouth against her nape.
She looked up. Must be the pine cones, she thought.
Why was Harish shouting?
She ran down to the ground floor. The glass door to the garden was locked. Aniruddha must have let himself out through the French doors on the other side. Her feet felt like clay in a mould. She stood still, nose flat against the glass pane. Outside, Aniruddha lay motionless on the grass.
She found the latch at last and let herself out through the door.
Harish made the phone calls. Urmi sat with Aniruddha, taking in the smell of his blood, his crumpled clothes, touching the wet grass blackened with the blood from his head. The cigarette that had singed his fingertips lay snuffed out next to him. She raised the stub to her mouth and puckered her lips around it. His breath lingered on it.
By the time Siddharth raised her from the grass and took her inside, her home had turned into a circus; strange feet pattered through its spaces and stranger questions surrounded her, ricocheting off her ears.
I hate museums. But I loved them at one time.
She doesn’t know why this unrelated thought has crept into her mind, but she realises almost immediately that it is not as disconnected as it seems. Museums collect things, a sort of clutter that has to be categorised mentally, visually, aurally, spatially for the viewer to make sense of it all. The past suddenly seems to her to be such a museum. Is it possible to declutter it? What categories would she jettison?
Aditya’s voice brings her back to the present; her mind lingers in the past. He’s asking about Siddharth.
“He was lost to himself. But he wasn’t to blame! You must believe that. How could he have known?”
Aditya can make no sense of this sudden rush of words. He sits beside her in the cane chair he once helped her buy and takes her hands in his. She hasn’t changed much, except for her eyes. “You’re still lovely, Urmi.” That’s not what he meant to say, not at such a time.
“Aadi!” She smiles through her rebuke.
“What does Sid do?”
“Wild child. Perhaps he wanders. Writes for newspapers, magazines. I’ve never read his columns. Opinion columns. Perhaps he only paints in the woods.”
Her responses meander as she floats between the present and the past. Aditya can make no sense of what she says. He’s been away too long, a nomad between countries and cities.
His phone rings, blinking in the twilight.
When he returns to her after the call, Urmi is still in the same place, unmoving, staring into the darkness that has gathered among the bushes and trees.
“What about the factory, Urmi? Doesn’t Siddharth manage it?”
“He’s not mature enough for that. Not yet. You’ll have to continue managing it for him.”
He leans towards her. “What was that?”
“He’s not ready for it. God knows when he will be, with his talk of natives and sons of the soil… Listen! Don’t be harsh. Try to understand! You must manage for some more time…”
She taps his hand. “You’re getting older. I know, I know. But it’s just a matter of time. Then we’ll travel in the Himalayas, we won’t postpone that again. I promise.” She squeezes his hand and gets up. “I forget so much these days. You must be hungry after work.” She cups his cheek. “At this age, you ought to manage without me, Aniruddha.”
Aditya paces the length of the garden. He’s confused, bewildered. She returns with sandwiches and tea. The silence between them is one of strangers.
“Do you remember Ishani?” he asks, trying to crack the thin ice.
She shakes her head.
“My daughter?” he prompts.
She shakes her head and goes back inside the house.
Aditya continues to sit in the dark garden, accompanied by the hum of mosquitoes and the distant sound of temple bells.
Urmi returns, looking hesitant when she reaches him. Then her world seems to shift, and she sits down quickly. “I think I made some mistake.”
He cannot see her eyes in this non-light, so he focuses on her voice. “You did?”
“Yes. Yes. I don’t know what, but I think I said something. This has not happened earlier. I am sorry, Adi. Truly. What did I say? Exactly?”
“I think you said something about dinner.”
She keeps quiet; he can hear her measured breathing. “That’s all?”
“I think so. If you had other plans…”
“No! I… It’s… I don’t know what to cook. What would you like to have?”
He stands up and takes her hand. “I’ll help you. Fathering Ishani has taught me kitchen skills. Be warned, I am a good cook.”
“Who’s Ishani?” she asks as they cook.
“I found her at the temple, remember? Nishi and I adopted her.”
A cloud passes over her eyes. “Tell me everything.”
Love and land—both have histories of their own, memories that come home to roost, smells that cling, rendering time tenuous. In MEMORIES OF TOMORROW, the present is fragile, the past quicksand, and the future full of nostalgia. The novel too travels this undulating path through shifting time.
On a breezy, pine-scented afternoon, Aniruddha is killed by mercenaries. Whether this is an accident or his sacrifice for his son, Siddharth, is uncertain, but his death leaves traces that unhinge a family and a house. It leaves Urmila (Urmi), Aniruddha’s widow, in a state of suspension, trapped in the moment when her husband walked out of her arms and died. Trisha, Siddharth’s betrothed, holds his political involvement responsible for his father’s death. He doesn’t concede his culpability, but guilt is corrosive. It also brings awareness and restores sanity.
The story travels between Ambuda in the hills, with its river that is said to be hidden from common view and its forests protected by women, and Dhaara in the plains. In Ambuda stands Saachi, the house that pines for the love and laughter of the past. To this house comes the intrepid Kabir, a child orphaned in a riot, nobody’s son and everybody’s darling, with the courage to challenge Urmi’s forgetfulness. Which part of her memory will she regain? What will come of it? The answers will open up the story to the world around Saachi, drawing in the land and its past, its forests and their secrets.
Away from the mountains, in a parallel narrative, stands Dhaara with its ancient fort said to be guarded by the ghost of its queen, nurtured by a river that once flooded the city and washed away its memory. No stories remain of its pre-colonial past. When Siddharth sets about trying to dredge the city’s history, he revives its memory but changes its present in ways he did not imagine or desire.
What does one do with memory and its consequences? How does one take charge of it? MEMORIES OF TOMORROW is as much about salvaging the past as it is about creating a future. The novel is a lyrical, layered narrative of experiences and emotions related to the memory of land and of love, and especially the visceral relationship that women have to it.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane is an award-winning writer and independent book editor based in Pune, India. Her debut collection of literary fiction, Cast Out and Other Stories, was published in 2018 and received critical acclaim. Her stories and book reviews have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including the Asia-Africa anthology Behind the Shadows, Zubaan Books’ speculative fiction anthology Breaking the Bow (based on the Ramayana), the African literary magazine Dwarts, RIC Journal (Jaipur and Paris), Bhashabandhan Literary Review, Café Dissensus, The Bangalore Review, The Bengaluru Review, Out of Print, Unisun Publications’ Vanilla Desires, and APK Publications’ anthology of short stories by Indian women writers, titled Ripples. In 2013 her short story “Rear View” won the international Dastaan Award, and in 2008 her collection titled Jungle Stories took second place in the Oxford Bookstores’ Debuting Writers’ Prize. Sucharita teaches courses in Writing and Editing at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce and at Flame Liberal Arts University, Pune. She was the editor from 2017 to 2019 of Kitaab, an online literary journal published from Singapore.
Embark, Issue 13, October 2020