Lopa—short for Lopamudra—bent forward to place the petri dish of live cells on the mechanical stage of the light microscope, not spilling a single drop of the nutrient liquid.
It was evening and her eyes were already red from the exertions of the day; and once she had switched on the light switch of the microscope, her eyes hurt even more. She looked in through the eye piece of the microscope. But all she could see was a blur akin to sunset. She began turning the screws that would adjust the height of the stage of the microscope. And then Lopa began to focus the objective lens upon the petri dish, finally obtaining an image both sharp and clear.
The cells were wiggling around in the dish. The largest cell was positioned almost in the middle, with a nucleus bloated out at the centre rather like a flower’s receptacle. Lopa screwed up her eyes and observed this one. It appeared to have arms radiating outwards, like the firelit petals of a French marigold soused in wind and rain. And the adjoining cells were a shade of honey, flecked here and there in the yellow of a Tuscan sun, deepening into a scarlet glow towards the right end of the petri dish.
“Look at the cell in the middle,” Lopa suggested to Adil, who was seated on the stool beside hers, rummaging the jhola, the cloth bag with embroidery in kantha stitch that Lopa had gifted him the year before. “It’s like the cell’s got arms everywhere. Like an octopus. As if the cell’s reaching out for company.”
Adil looked in through the eye piece of the light microscope, and bristles of his unshaven beard brushed against Lopa’s right ear.
“Only connect!” Adil announced, his lips curling into a mischievous grin.
Lopa peered into the eye piece of the microscope again. That afternoon, during lunch break, her father had called her out of the blue. It had been ages since she had talked to either of her parents—they usually communicated via WhatsApp messages these days.
“There is some news we haven’t told you yet,” Lopa’s Baba had said. “We didn’t want you to get worried unnecessarily.”
It had emerged that Lopa’s mother Jaya had developed mouth cancer a few months ago, and she had just concluded three months of chemotherapy at the Tata Medical Center. The Centre was located in the metropolis of Kolkata, previously called Calcutta, over a good 300-kilometre train ride away from Purulia town where Lopa’s parents lived. There really was no need for Lopa to have gotten worried on her mother’s account, all was well now.
No, if all’s well there’s no need for me to get worried, Lopa had said to herself after she had hung up.
In the lab, as Lopa zoomed in upon the largest cell in the petri dish once again, her mind wandered back to one morning, almost a decade ago, when she had been standing at the doorway of her home in Purulia town.
She had taken care not to step into the paisley patterns of rice paste at the corners on the floor. Doing alpana was not a skill that Lopa herself possessed in any great measure, although she had seen it being done all her life by her mother and the people in their neighbourhood. The intricate floral patterns made on the ground using flowers of all hues or powdered rice paste dyed in many colours were a feature of many Hindu households all over India especially on the eve of a puja, a ritual to celebrate and thank the gods.
Holding her duffel bag on her right arm, she surveyed the scene set up for the puja of Goddess Saraswati. The puja had been arranged in the living room of the home that used to be hers now only over the holiday breaks, when she would return from her hostel as a student at Rajabazar Science College, a part of the University of Calcutta.
Lopa saw Bablu and Tumpa—the youngest children of the domestic help, Lalita-Mashi—hunched over in the act of drawing a big alpana of a swan, the avian companion of the goddess. The teenaged Bablu’s able hand held a tiny sachet containing white rice flour paste. A little earthen bowl on the floor housed the sachet when it was not in use, and a damp rag lay alongside in order to wipe off any mark that might be made inadvertently on the floor.
Bablu sketched out the fanned tail of the bird by dripping rice paste from the sachet, and then tapered off the tail into a flame of water droplets in decreasing size. And now Lopa saw not one swan but two, each lovingly facing the other upon the waves of a partially drawn lake.
As Bablu manoeuvred his grubby feet every second so as not to destroy his own creation, the seven- or eight-year-old Tumpa kept removing her child-sized apricot saree out of his way as well as that of the alpana. In one hand, she held a brass stamp, which she kept dipping alternately into two bowls of vermilion and turmeric paste, touching up the swan’s feathers with successive dots in crimson and in butter-yellow.
In the centre of the room, in front of the altar to Goddess Saraswati, Lopa observed a more elaborate alpana, a giant blooming lotus. The rosette within the lotus was composed primarily of discrete flower petals, plucked from African marigolds with their fulsome inflorescences. The lotus petals had been alternated in shades of dark amber and canary yellow, substituting for the real-life striations of fuchsia over white, and the enormous sepals underneath had been made up of buds closed as yet in late winter.
Had I been in charge, Lopa reflected, I would have chosen rose petals to represent the lotus. Not marigold.
But as far as Lopa remembered there were no rose bushes in the tiny walled garden that they shared with the neighbours in the apartment block, where elderly and middle-aged women plucked flowers for their regular puja every morning. And there was certainly no pond in the neighbourhood, with blooms of lotus or water lily. In the centre of the lotus on the floor, Lopa noted, where the stamens and the style might have been, stood a circle of incense sticks stuck into a bronze holder in a gilded hue, billowing dense clouds of sandalwood smoke into the air.
Further across the lotus alpana stood the shrine, with the statuette of Goddess Saraswati draped in garlands of marigold. There was also a garland made of minikin blossoms of night jasmine, still open in the coolness of the morning, as though daisy-chained to each other with stems of pumpkin orange. The veena, the stringed instrument that the goddess held in her arms, Lopa noted, looked out of proportion.
But then is this meant to be photographically true to the seated position of the goddess, Lopa wondered? Was this asymmetry perhaps the sculptor’s distinctive touch, conferred upon a statuette that must have been cast from a single mould a million times, for the customers teeming at the puja bazaar?
In front of the statuette stood another circle of incense sticks in a bronze holder, as well as an arati lamp with a set of diya set aflame. An earthen pot was spewing smoke from what must have been a tablet of camphor set alight. Adjoining these items stood a large conch shell in off-white and a bell, also in the gilded hue of bronze. To the left of these items stood a large bronze plate with raised edges, heaped up with fruit—apples, bananas, custard apples, mud apples—the aata and the shobeda, the green berries of Indian jujubes—the “narkel kool,” and the wrinkly red berries of Chinese jujubes—the “topa kool.” And shaankh-alu—the fleshy white fruit omnipresent at every puja.
Nobody likes the taste of the shaankh-alu, Lopa said to herself. But for some reason we have to have it at every puja.
Presumably the fruit would be chopped shortly before the puja would begin with the arrival of the purutmoshai, the Brahmin priest. Would that be Jagannath-Kaku, Lopa conjectured, the neighbour? Like every year?
As the smoke from the camphor and the incense at the shrine surged to fill the entire room, Lopa felt glad to be drenched in their aroma. In those years, her sweat-ridden salwar kameez had a habit of flapping around her reed-thin body, almost as breezily as the churni that she used to place modestly over her bosom. In the early morning, armed with her duffel bag, she had taken a tram in Kolkata from her hostel up to Howrah train station. Then, after the train ride all the way to Purulia Junction, Lopa had alighted and made her way straight to Sameer-da’s pan shop in front of the station, hoping to grab a smoke.
Sameer-da usually opens his shutters by half-past seven, Lopa had recalled.
She reached the raised platform that served as his shop, and found him hanging strings of plastic mini-packs of pan masala from either end of the platform. The strings crackled in the light wind.
Lopa asked Sameer-da for a pack of cigarettes, knowing that he would merely throw a half-smile of welcome at her, and ask no questions. By now he had gotten too used to the ways of young women gallivanting off to higher studies in big cities. A rustle from little Tumpa broke her reverie.
“Who helped you wear the saree, Tumpa?” Lopa asked the little girl at the puja, glad for not having lit up a cigarette from the pack that she had bought at Sameer-da’s.
“I put it on myself,” Tumpa replied brightly. “It’s just like wearing a dress, it’s got a big rubber band inside.” She probably means an elastic band, Lopa said to herself.
“Jaya-didimoni gave me the saree,” Tumpa elaborated, referring to Lopa’s mother. “She’s doing the flower alpana, now she’s gone into the kitchen. To see if the shinni is ready yet.” The shinni was the flour halwa dessert without which no puja would ever be quite complete. “It has to be made fresh,” Tumpa explained, as if wearing the saree had made her grow up already, “otherwise it will go bad, and you will fall ill.”
Jaya walked into the living room, dressed in a crisp saree of Bengal cotton that crackled as she walked. The bulk of the saree cloth was in off-white but for a border design of parakeets in tiger orange. Jaya held a shiny brass pot in her hands, left uncovered on purpose in order to cool down the freshly-cooked shinni. The perfumed tang of cinnamon and cardamom from the shinni wafted across to Lopa.
“You’ve lost weight,” Jaya said to Lopa. But she was smiling, glad to see her daughter back home once again. “The food you get at the hostel, it must be so bad. In the evenings you could try soaking a little gram in water. Then if you have the gram every morning—early in the morning—you’ll get lots of energy.”
“I live in a room with 4 people, Ma,” Lopa sighed. She let out a yawn, clapping her mouth. “There’s no time to think of all that in the morning. When we have to queue up in front of the bathrooms. To get ready for classes.” Lopa looked around briefly. “Where is Baba?”
“At Kanika-di’s place, your Baba and Jagannath-Babu will be coming here around 11,” Jaya replied. “They wanted at least one person from our home to be there at their puja. So I said to your Baba, you should go, I need to do the flower alpana, make the shinni, chop up the fruits—all the things we need to do last-minute. Tumpa and Bablu can help. Lalita is helping Kanika-di and Jagannath-Babu right now.”
Lopa bent towards the pot of shinni. Had she washed her hands, she would probably have been unable to resist dipping in a spoon into the divine confection.
“Ugh, you smell of sweat!” Jaya exclaimed, fanning her nose and scrunching up her eyebrows. “Go and take a bath, quick. I’ve laid out your saree on your bed.”
“Sorry,” replied Lopa, crestfallen. “I had to leave the hostel early. 4’o’clock in the morning. Then I had to make my way through the crowds. Howrah station is so crowded even at that hour!”
“You’ll find hot water in the kitchen,” Jaya replied calmly. “On the stove. I just boiled the water, it should still be warm. Be careful when you add it to the bucket.”
Once Lopa had finished her bath, she wrapped her long curly hair in a gamcha. Then she proceeded to wear her saree in front of the full-length mirror on the almirah. She made and pressed down the pleats in front that went into the waistline, as well as the pleats on her shoulder. It took all of 25 minutes.
But I need to insert a safety pin through the pleats on my shoulder, Lopa thought. To keep the pleats stable. It won’t do to have the saree aanchal flapping about at the puja, definitely not near a flame. Even from an incense stick. If Ma happens to be busy, maybe Tumpa can help.
Lopa went back to the living room. Indeed, Jaya was doing the remainder of the flower alpana now, arranging mango leaves beside the hibiscus and the lotus in a spiral. The arrangement looked uncannily like an Advent wreath before Christmas, Lopa would say to herself, sitting in the lab almost a decade later.
“You forgot to put back the lid on the pot of hot water,” Jaya said to Lopa, looking up briefly.
“Sorry,” replied Lopa. “I’m out of practice. We don’t get hot water at the hostel.”
“What a memsahib you’ve become. Saying ‘sorry’ all the time.”
Lopa marked that her mother was touching up the outline of the lotus with the sachet that Bablu had been using before, thickening the sepals.
Doesn’t it get exhausting, Lopa asked herself, drawing the same pattern over and over and over again?
“Why don’t you just use a brush instead?” Lopa queried her mother. “Wouldn’t it be easier than using that—that bag?”
“What’s wrong with the sachet?” Jaya replied testily, and pointed to an empty corner of the room. “You can also add some alpana there, you can just copy the designs here.” She looked up and scrutinised her daughter. “But first you should fix your saree pleats. The pleats at the waist, they look uneven.”
“Sorry,” Lopa answered. “It’s been a while since the last time I wore a saree. That was at our college fest. In November. The senior students—from the batch above mine—they chose me. To be an anchor for the programme,” Lopa elaborated, with little trace of false modesty.
“Let Tumpa help you,” Jaya replied, mindless of a college fest. Tumpa had just carried in some bowls from the kitchen, made of sewn leaves of sal. In these bowls they would serve the prasad of fruit after the puja, to whoever in the neighbourhood might happen to drop in through the day.
Lopa and Tumpa went into the former’s room.
“You redo the pleats from your waist,” Tumpa now said confidently to Lopa, “I’ll press them down here over your legs.” She had addressed Lopa with “tui,” the most informal way of saying “you” in Bengali.
Lopa herself would never have dreamt of using the “tui” to anyone who didn’t happen to be a close friend, or someone much younger than herself. But this was normal for Tumpa, Lopa reminded herself, it was a habit common to people from the labouring classes in these outlying districts of West Bengal.
Lopa and Tumpa went back to the living room. Lopa in her newly-pleated saree picked up the sachet of rice paste that now lay in its bowl, as well as the bowl of vermilion. The flower alpana was done, and Bablu must have left for a break after his exertions of the morning. Tumpa settled down with Jaya to chop up the fruit.
Lopa armed herself with the sachet of rice paste, and now tried to sketch out an oblong spiral with her unpractised hand, in faint imitation of Bablu’s swantail. But the result turned out to be a total disaster, and she ended up wiping off the unruly marks more than a few times with the damp rag. I will stick to the simple, Lopa finally told herself.
She ended up making a pattern in an elaborate lattice of little squares. Then she started filling in the empty spaces within the squares with a row of dots in vermilion. Jaya looked across at the alpana Lopa had just made.
“That looks too South Indian,” Jaya said, “it’s not like our kind of alpana. It’s the kind of alpana that Mrs. Ranganathan does usually. When she invites us upstairs for Satyanarayan Puja every year.”
“Sorry.” Lopa gave up. “I think what Ranganathan-Aunty does, it’s kolam. With kolam,” she added, almost in an undertone, “you can even show the complex structures of proteins.”
“Never mind, I’ll try some other decoration,” Lopa suggested. “There’s a kind of flower arrangement called ikebana. From Japan. I learnt it from my roommate Aparna. She learnt about it from her mother. Her mother works at Sony, they’re a Japanese company.”
“I know Sony is Japanese,” Jaya replied irritably. “Just do what you want.” Jaya was concentrating on the shankh-alu as she sliced it on the dangerously efficient blade of the boti between her knees. “After all you’ll be arranging flowers. Flowers never look ugly.”
“I’ve seen some videos about ikebana,” Lopa insisted, positioning the bowls of rice paste and vermilion close to the altar. “They teach you how to do ikebana. You need to fix the flowers on a pin-holder. It’s made of metal, it’s called a kenzan in Japan. Last week I tried out a small arrangement. With jasmine. From the flower shop beside our college gate. And a couple of branches. There’s a mud apple tree in front of our hostel.” Lopa wiped her fingers on the damp rag now. “I put it on my window sill. But the woman who cleans our room, she swept the flowers off, she left the pin-holder in its place. The flowers had turned a bit dry, maybe she’d thought I’d have thrown them away anyway. Anyway, I brought the pin-holder here, so I could practise with flowers from the garden.”
Lopa went into her room again. She rummaged through her duffel bag for the heavy metal kenzan, which had certainly weighted her bag at the bottom. She had wrapped it carefully in a layer of sponge so that the pins wouldn’t scratch and rip the clothes and books that she had packed in above. Finally, she found the kenzan, with its thin, needle-sharp pins protruding from the round metal bed.
She went into the kitchen and ransacked the shelves at the back, where, she knew, her mother usually stowed away the utensils used for a puja rather than for everyday meals. Lopa found a bronze plate with raised edges, and filled it with water at the tap. Now she placed the kenzan in it carefully, at an angle to the centre. Then she took the whole assemblage into the living room, managing not to spill a single drop. She balanced the assemblage on the floor, on the spot where she had drawn her abortive alpana before.
“I’ll get some flowers from the garden,” Lopa announced to her mother. There was a cloth bag on the floor with a couple of mango leaves and marigold petals peeping out of the top. Lopa picked it up.
In the garden, African marigolds grew in abundance. As the mid-morning sun caressed each flower, Lopa plucked them one by one, with the serrated leaves on their stems. A centipede was sunning itself on one of the stems, and Lopa plucked the leaves it had just bored holes into, and the ones along which it had left pointy jagged edges, barely half-eaten.
Lopa looked around for what else she could use for a sere yet varied look to the arrangement. The red berries of the Chinese jujube were growing on a shrub, and looked ripe for plucking. They would contrast well with the marigolds, Lopa thought, better than the green Indian jujube.
Then, as she picked the berries of the Chinese jujube, Lopa realised that the branches of the shrub had an oddly hard, woody texture. Perfect for sticking on to the kenzan. The branches would supply a triangular outline of sorts, encasing the flowers and the leaves and the berries. As Lopa tore off a few twigs from the shrub, each made a loud ripping crack.
Lopa washed all her finds at the tap embedded in the wall of the narrow passage that led to the garden. She carried everything inside, and emptied the contents of the cloth bag on the floor.
“Look at you,” Jaya said. “When you used to live here, I always used to have to remind you to water the plants. But you’re picking off all the flowers now.”
“Sorry,” Lopa replied. “After I cut them there will be bits and pieces left. I’ll throw back whatever I don’t need back into the soil. They’ll add nutrients. Is there a pair of scissors I can use? Something blunt? With an already rusty blade?”
“The maali, he keeps a pair of shears,” Jaya replied, referring to the professional gardener who came to visit all the gardens in the locality once a week. “Go, look below the stairs for a jute sack.”
Of course, the shears were exactly where Jaya said they would be.
Jaya was standing near the bronze plate and the kenzan that Lopa had set on the floor, eyeing the materials with curiosity. Tumpa was seated cross-legged on the floor, slicing bananas and mud apples with a knife.
“I was going to use the jujubes for making pickles,” Jaya said to Lopa. “Every year you’re the first to finish the jar.”
“There are some jujubes left on the other bush,” Lopa answered, not looking at her mother. She fixed the branches with some effort onto the metal pins of the kenzan. “The green jujubes,” she added.
“You don’t even know which jujubes are used for making pickle. The green ones, they’re too sweet.”
Lopa pruned one side of the jujube branches lightly with the pair of shears. “The materials for ikebana, they have to fit the season,” she said in a low voice. “Like you can’t use mango buds now, the manjari. Even if you see them on the tree already.” She planted a stem with the marigold leaves on the kenzan, preparing what looked like a base to cushion the flowers and berries that would come on top, including bits and pieces of the stems and twigs she had just snipped.
“Those leaves, the worms have eaten them!” Jaya exclaimed. She picked up a fistful of the remaining marigold petals beside her own flower alpana, and floated them into the water in the bronze plate. “Here, now you can hide all the holes in the leaves,” she added to Lopa.
Lopa scooped up all the petals in a trice.
“You don’t add loose petals,” she stated to her mother. “Unless they fall naturally from the flowers here.”
Lopa took the marigold flower stems, and started cutting them in a slant with the pair of shears, just under the water level.
“You’re allowed to put in worm-bitten leaves into ikebana,” she explained to Jaya. “The arrangement, it’s meant to be true to Nature.”
“It’s disgusting, your arrangement,” Jaya said. She turned her back on the arrangement and walked back to the fruits, which Tumpa had nearly finished chopping by now.
“If you don’t like it, Ma, I’ll just take the whole thing off,” Lopa said quietly.
She began pulling off the marigold leaves and the jujube branches off the kenzan. Then she took across the bronze plate and the kenzan into the kitchen, washed them both at the tap, and she brought them back into the living room. The kenzan was still perched atop the plate now emptied of water.
“Will you need the plate for the puja?” Lopa asked Jaya.
“You can leave it here,” Jaya replied nonchalantly. She was arranging the already-chopped fruit in concentric circles on the large bronze plate. “Maybe all the fruit won’t fit in on this plate. If it doesn’t fit, we can use the other plate.”
Lopa held up the kenzan with her left hand and bent down to place the bronze plate near her mother with her right hand. Suddenly, however, her left hand lost its grip. The kenzan fell to the ground. Its round metal bed with its needle-sharp pins started rolling away towards Jaya before Lopa could have lunged forward and caught it.
“Ma!” shrieked Lopa, staring aghast.
Jaya barely had time to register the abomination hurtling towards her—Lopa heard the barest whisper of her saree crackle as her mother managed to shift her body just in time.
The kenzan came to rest finally a mere centimetre away from Jaya’s right foot, the teeth of its pins a whisper away from sinking into the softness of human flesh.
“Sorry!” Lopa said in an urgent whisper. Jaya looked as though she could have murdered her own daughter.
Lopa and Adil had first met each other in Professor Schwalbe’s lab a couple of years ago, when Lopa had just begun her postdoc. Thanks to her additional years of experience, Lopa had then helped Adil grow his cell cultures. Now the two of them were engaged to be married to each other.
That evening they had both finished their work for the day in their respective labs, but Lopa wanted to have a last look at the cells she was growing before they wrapped up for the day and went their separate ways, to the apartments they each shared with their respective housemates in the same neighbourhood in Riedberg, in the city of Frankfurt.
“Only connect?” Lopa screwed her eyes at Adil. “You lifted that from some ad?”
“N-no,” responded Adil emphatically, settling himself back on his stool. “It’s a quote. From E.M. Forster. The famous English writer.”
“You and your English writers,” Lopa smirked. “When I was in college, we used to read Suchitra Bhattacharya. The Bengali writer.” Adil wouldn’t have read Suchitra Bhattacharya, he spoke the South Indian language Malayalam at home. “Her books,” Lopa continued, “they’d burn you. Like fire.”
And now, almost a decade after the accident that did not happen, Lopa switched off the light of the microscope, and settled herself calmly back on her stool.
“Cells don’t need to connect,” she said to Adil. Gesturing towards the petri dish with the marigold near the centre, she added, “This was a cancer cell, better if it stays alone. Not copy itself over and over again.”
Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Ms. Kristyn Westphal, Dr. Arpita Kundu Chatterjee, and Dr. Anna Maria Ranzoni for generously having shared their time and advice with me in the form of editorial as well as scientific input.