When Goopy’s parents took him to Delhi during the Puja holidays, one of the places that they took him to see was the Qutub Minar.
When their car passed through Mehrauli, Goopy confessed that it was really the Iron Pillar he was most excited about.
They had stayed with relatives. His cousins had prepared him. They told him about the legend: if one stood with one’s back to the pillar and managed to clasp their hands behind it, then they would be blessed with good luck.
Goopy was in Class 5. It was a big year. Only the finest went on to Class 6 at his school. The rest were handed transfer certificates. He had been working towards the all-important Class 5 exams for as long as he could remember. He needed some luck.
Decades later, Goopy returns with his daughter. They haven’t been home for so long. His family has seen her grow over Zoom. Goopy has been unable to keep his promise to bring his family back each year. He has turned – he fears – into one of those Non-Resident-Indians who became Not-Really-Indians. Now that they are finally home, he feels strongly that Amulya should know her nation’s capital. You cannot know India, he tells anyone who cares to listen, through video calls. And know India, Amulya must. With parents like hers, how could she not?
And yet, Goopy is just a little bit proud that this is not her real nation after all. Her nation is the country of her birth. That one-step-remove from reality grants him generosity.
That one-step-remove from the reality of all things Indian allows Goopy to feel benevolent about a country that he has made it his life’s work to remain as far away from as possible. Goopy has worked hard all his life, he’s never bunked off tuitions, he’s never failed to show up for exams. He sailed through IIT, waltzed through IIM. He aced the campus interviews. His starting salary nearly made the papers. He did exactly what he was supposed to do: he left the country.
The family speaks of Goopy proudly, in reverent tones. The neighbourhood aunties speak of him as a shining example of what might happen if neighbourhood boys just put their mind to it. His old friends, the ones he had played football with, on waterlogged and muddy fields, sent him their resumes. The recession had hit them hard. He began to mute his school groups on WhatsApp. There was only so much guilt he could take. They didn’t seem to understand that in the course of the recession that hit after the pandemic, Goopy held on to his own job by the skin of his teeth. When he thinks of it now, he feels relief except it’s churned with a duller taste, incredulity. There are many who haven’t made it.
Upon arriving at the Minar, Goopy is immediately disappointed. He learns that they have fenced off the pillar. While centuries of rain have not managed to rust its iron, centuries of human hugs have apparently been far more damaging.
There will be no good luck for his daughter then. Goopy shrugs his shoulders, purses his lips. It is unfair, he feels, for India to keep on changing the rules on him while he has been away. When Goopy was young, his aunt moved to England. Every summer, she and her daughter would visit, religiously. Goopy would go to the airport to receive them. They would emerge with suitcases stuffed full of gifts. Loading them into the trunk of the taxi, Goopy would have a surreptitious feel of what lay inside. Boxes of chocolates and biscuits wrapped in T-shirts and stoles, handbags, and lipsticks. Perfume. All of his aunts smelt of Yardley. Inside the taxi, as it coasted over the Bypass, his aunt would exclaim, “Oh, Kolkata has changed so much!” She would point it out to her daughter. Small changes, a new road here, another Haldiram’s there. Her daughter would squeal too. It was easy, Goopy would think, to feel magnanimous when you’ve achieved the dream. He wanted to love the city too, he wanted to see what they saw. For that to happen, Goopy knew – even then – that he would have to leave it all behind.
Amulya looks around the grounds of the Qutub Minar. Goopy has hired a guide to tell her the tales. At home, in Oregon, they have a set of Amar Chitra Katha. She attends Hindi school, Bengali school. She has Bharatnatyam lessons. After tennis lessons on Saturdays, they drive her over to the next town where she learns to sing Rabindrasangeet, authentically. Goopy and Ananya are determined that she grow up cultured. That she, in her person, marry East to West. She doesn’t call them Mom and Dad, but Ma and Baba. In India, all their relatives are impressed by the fluency of her Bengali. She puts her Delhi cousins to shame.
Amulya, however, is far more intent on taking pictures with the candy-coloured camera that she has looped around her neck. An expensive birthday gift, it is an inedible confection. Goopy hopes that the photography bug remains just that, a bug, easily quashed. Goopy himself has a DSLR, he himself has a good feeling about all the pigeons he’s managed to shoot in various states of flight. He looks forward to uploading it all to Facebook in an album titled ‘Delhi 6’ or ‘Masakali’. He has even planned the captions in his head. Goopy looks forward to creating another album, also on Facebook, titled ‘Father and Daughter Shots’. The bug should remain just that. A bug easily quashed. He hopes that unlike Mitra’s son, his daughter doesn’t get ahead of herself. He has other plans, other means of getting her ahead.
Goopy kicks at the gravel, disgruntled. The day is turning out quite differently to how he had imagined it would.
He calls the driver. They must leave. There’s still the Lotus Temple and Red Fort to see. If possible, Tuqlaqabad. Ananya is already there, shooting publicity stills for a new sari collection: Motherland.
Goopy smiles when he thinks of Ananya.
They had met at IIM; in America, she spent her time as a stay-at-home mom reinventing herself as a relatable mummy blogger. She was called upon to launch everything from books to pillowcases and now, saris. When she had told him that he just needed to keep the faith, that she would make it big, he had wanted to tell her that as an IIM graduate, surely, she was better than blogging? In retrospect, he was glad that he had bitten his tongue.
Yes, he thinks. Tuqlaqabad is a good idea. It would be good for Amulya to see that you could make your own luck. It would be good for her to see how her mother was supporting homegrown Indian heritage artisanship. Just as they are about to get back into the car and move on, a child comes knocking at the window.
He is bare-bodied. His ragged shorts defy gravity, held up by sheer good will and nothing else. The flesh has begun to slide off his bones. His smile appears to be wider than his face. His naked feet are grey with dust.
“Babu,” he says, “kuch de ke jana.”
Goopy recoils in disgust. The entitlement of it shocks him every time. Why should he leave anything behind? He is a self-made man. The urchin would no doubt hand over Goopy’s hard-earned cash to the character who had groomed him or, if he were lucky, to his drug-addled parents.
Goopy shakes his head.
Amulya looks at the child in shock. She then looks up at Goopy. He cringes at her expression. He wishes that she could toughen up. But no. Brown-eyed, she is melting with sadness, distraught that this too could be someone’s reality. Amulya looks back at the boy. She doesn’t understand all that he says but poverty is a universal language. In his mind, Goopy hates the child who has made Amulya feel sad. He has made Amulya feel uncomfortable. He has ripped into the fantasy that Goopy has woven about India.
The thing is, they have spoken about this. Goopy has explained to her that they can’t give money to all those who come begging. That’s why they do readathons, spelling bees, sponsored silences, sponsored fasts… They run, they hike, they bike, they bake, they auction to raise money for an earthquake over here, a flood over there, a new school roof, whatever. They are, Goopy tells her, good people. They are already doing their bit. They had seen the mass exodus of humanity crisscrossing the land. They had sent money. Their hearts had been broken by the accidents which no one but the news cameras seemed to care about, by bodies lying bent on the side of the road as small children wailed over them. Their hearts had rent in two. They had shared GoFundMes on Facebook and forwarded messages on WhatsApp. They had responded to the call to arms. Ananya and Goopy, well, they were known for doing their bit.
But Amulya, she insists. She calls upon Goopy to do a bit more.
And Goopy can never say no. Never to her.
He takes a coin off the dashboard and flings it at the child.
It catches him between the eyes. It lands on the ground, by the tires. The child looks stunned. For a moment, everything is still apart from Amulya’s eyes which sketch back and forth between her father’s face and the boy’s. The boy recovers swiftly to scrabble for the coin in the dirt. He runs away without looking back.
Goopy slides into the passenger seat, he feels something. He doesn’t know what.
He turns to check that Amulya is safely secured in her booster seat. She is. He turns around, comfortably, feeling vindicated. He is forgetting already. The booster sits foremost in his mind. He has had to fight for it. A booster seat! His family thinks that he is ridiculous.
“You’re a big man,” a voice says, approaching. The voice belongs to an unassuming pink paunch and baggy brown trousers. It seems to resonate from a pair of weather-beaten sandals that have allowed the wearer’s toes to be dusted grey.
“Big man, in a big car. If you must give, give with a big heart, or don’t give at all. We believe that God resides in everyone. Think of the little people like us. Do not give like that. He is just a boy”.
“I…” Goopy begins. “No…” he stutters. He wants to say that it wasn’t like that, but the words won’t come out. He has done so much. This was one small step. Possibly a tiny mistake. He wants to explain but the words don’t come.
“No, sir, no.” He silences Goopy. He is larger than life. “You’re a big man. Carry on, just remember.”
Goopy slumps in his seat. He can’t look at Amulya. He can’t meet his daughter’s eyes. A spark has been lit. There are questions there that he cannot answer.
Puja holidays: when schools in West Bengal, India, close during the autumnal festival of Durga Puja
Qutub Minar: a ‘Minar’ or tower of victory built in 1193, in Delhi, by Qutub-ud-din-Aibak
Mehrauli: a neighbourhood in South Delhi
Iron Pillar: a 7m-tall iron column standing in the corner of the mosque, where legend has it that if you can encircle it with your hands while facing away from it, you will have good luck and your wish will be fulfilled
NRI: the abbreviation for Non Resident Indian, a term denoting status, but now often made fun of
Bypass: short for the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in Kolkata, once used as a corridor around the city and now built up and developed
Haldiram’s: a famous Indian supermarket, known especially for its sweetmeats, savouries and snacks
Amar Chitra Katha: Indian graphic novels which depict scenes from Indian mythology and history
Rabindrasangeet: a genre of music centred around the Bengali philosopher-poet, Rabindranath Tagore
Bharatnatyam: a classical form of Indian dance
Delhi 6: a postcode in Old Delhi as well as the film named after it
Masakali: a song from ‘Delhi 6’
IIT: Indian Institute of Technology, a prestigious chain of Indian universities notoriously difficult to get into
IIM: Indian Institute of Management, as above but for management studies
Lotus Temple, Red Fort, Tuqlaqabad: iconic monuments and places of worship in Delhi
Babu, kuch de ke jana: “Please leave me something when you go”
© Resham Chakrabarti- Bhattacharya
Resham Chakrabarti-Bhattacharya is a teacher of English and an aspiring writer. Born in Kolkata and raised in Cambridge, Resham is fascinated by the theme of ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ and seeks to make sense of the complicated nature of immigrant identities in her writing. Resham lives in Zurich, Switzerland, with her husband and two children.