I can’t recall how old I was when the Senguptas moved next door. The earliest memory I have of them is Mrs Sengupta and her elderly mother-in-law laying out boris on the roof to dry. At that time, I did not know what they were made of, or what they were called. Frankly, they looked quite unappetizing to me. When Mrs Sengupta saw me, she waved at me and asked me to join them for lunch. She had cooked some of those boris and her fish fry with steamed rice, which earned a name for her throughout the neighbourhood, over the next few years.
Over lunch, Mrs Sengupta peppered me with questions about my school, what I did at home, my parents and a variety of other things. I can’t remember most of what I told her, as I was more focused on the smell of caramelised sugar coming from the kitchen. Even then, I had quite the sweet tooth. I was wondering whether there would be any dessert, and if so, whether it would be as exotic as the rest of the meal.
Mr Sengupta was a doctor. I didn’t meet him until several months after that, even though I hung out at their home most of the time. He was a serious man, with salt and pepper hair, a neatly trimmed mustache, frameless glasses and a slight limp in his gait. He looked older than he actually was, but he carried himself well and had a commanding presence. He spoke softly with an accent that was difficult to understand, but got the message across.
Mrs Sengupta was quite cheerful and always kept talking about something or the other. In her sari, and braided hair with conch shelled bangles adorning her arms, she looked beautiful. Lately, however, the more I think about her, the more I wonder how much of this liveliness was just an act she put on to fit in. Even back then, I could sense the nostalgia she felt when she would talk about home, although I never quite realised the extent of it. She loved cooking, which was partly the reason why I used to visit their place so frequently.
The other reason for my visits was their daughter, Namrata. She was four years older than me. Contrary to her name, Namrata was quite the rebel. Politeness did not come to her naturally at all. Her short hair and mismatched clothes alienated her more than her strange accent. “Cover up, Namrata, this is not home”, Mrs Sengupta used to reprimand her from time to time. Because of the friendship that developed between my mother and Mrs Sengupta, I was hoping to find out more about Namrata but that never happened. I had to resort to awkward small talk and waving at her from a distance when I went to her place.
“You keep looking at me, don’t you?”, she said one day when she caught me staring at her. “Come with me and I’ll show you something”. I followed her to her room without a word, my heart thumping so loudly that I could hear it. As soon as she opened the door, stale cigarette smoke along with the overpowering smell of lavender hit me. She put aside the heap of clothes on the bed, and asked me to sit down. Standing in front of me, she lifted her top a little to reveal a tattoo beneath. The skin was red, and it looked fresh. My fourteen year old brain was trying to comprehend the meaning behind it but it seemed like a generic pattern to me. I tentatively lifted her top a little more to reveal a couple of cuts that looked fresher. She pulled it back down and smacked my hand away. She told me to leave, and the age gap between us seemed to widen more somehow.
Over the years, I saw her several times. Running in the park outside her house. On her rooftop, sullenly helping her mother with chores. There was a restlessness in her that I could never quite understand, but it seemed more obvious the more I looked at her. At night, I would often hear the sounds of quarrel and raised voices coming from her room. I used to lean against the wall and try to make out the words but they were in Bengali. The older I grew, the more I shied away from Mrs Sengupta and the rest of the family. By this time, I was an awkward, pimply teenager and it was never the same.
The Senguptas left a year ago, but the last image I have of Namrata is still burnt in my head. In a vermillion lehenga, with arms full of conch shelled bangles like her mother’s, and intricate patterns of henna over her hands and feet, she was almost unrecognizable. I caught a glimpse of her tattoo peaking out over the lehenga, the skin around which looked raw and red. It seemed like she had been trying to scratch it out. When our eyes met, I like to think I merely imagined the desolation I saw. Superimposed over that is the image of her in the park, leaning against a tree, earphones plugged in. That is how I prefer to remember her.
A few months ago, I was passing through an Indian settlement. The aroma of spices in the market reminded me of the smells wafting through Mrs Sengupta’s kitchen. Filled with nostalgia, I picked out ingredients that I did not recognize, at the recommendation of the shopkeeper. Garam masala, jeera and haldi. All these alien names that seemed a little familiar somehow. At home, I tried to cook fish fry with rice but the fish came from a can and it did not taste the same, despite all the spices. I made an attempt to enjoy the meal, but I could barely finish half of it. I threw out the rest along with the spices in the trash.
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