An Ancestor in the Classroom
Sreya M. Datta
I want this to be a story about a spirit in the shape of words. Stay with me, and you will know what this means by the end.
It begins with an assignment on “decolonizing literary practice.” We are tired students, working day and night to beat the pandemic fatigue and chase that elusive first class for our Masters degree in Global Literatures. Most of us are sleepy from having only recently enjoyed the comforts of home during the pandemic and being able to complete part of our course online. Some of us are grieving. Now we are back. Like waves against a shore, our goings and comings are inexorable.
At every bend, we are reminded that it is a privilege to study about the world within the secure walls of an esteemed First World university. India, Africa, Canada, Jamaica —nothing, no part of the world is beyond our reach. Sometimes, they throw in British and American literatures too, to show that postcolonialism is a complex discourse, not bound by the mere accident of geography. We attend all our classes religiously because our visas depend on it. We cannot miss too many, otherwise this country will shut its doors on us. No one wants to waste an opportunity like this. Our presence sustains an entire ecosystem—the University thrives on our fees, landlords rely on our rent, our enterprise boosts the flagging economy. We are in a symbiotic relationship, we are wanted here.
We ring home sometimes when we are not too busy cooking dal in smuggled pressure cookers. A cooker added two kilos to the twenty-three that we are allowed by the international airlines. In the larger scheme of things, its weight is a small price to pay for all the nourishment we receive. On some evenings, I also prepare a friendly smile in case my neighbour passes me by the hallway and says, “are you cooking dal? Smells divine. Makes me want to cook some myself this evening!” For you, I want to say, it will take forty-five minutes and a lot of stirring. I say nothing because you collect my mail sometimes, when I am away at University. I do not want to upset the delicate balance of conviviality I have built up painstakingly. I collect hallway encounters like airport embraces. Somehow, I convince myself, they will all help me survive in this land.
In the Yard
“Is it your cat that is meowing at such a high pitch so early in the morning? What is happening?”
“Oh, Frimousse just saw the packet of Friskies in the neighbour’s house and got super excited. Let me take her away from here so that you can work in peace,” said Aurore.
Marie looked out of the window and saw the grey clouds gathering in the horizon despite the shaft of sunlight that fell on the terrace. She will have to finish the report for the university and press the “send” button before it starts raining and her mood becomes rotten.
It had been nearly a year for her, working from home due to the pandemic. As she had not closed the windows, she could hear the news floating in from the neighbour’s TV.
Cats have been found to have been infected with the coronavirus giving rise to speculation that some patients might have caught the infection from their pets.”
“Well, I must remember to clean the windowsills with sanitizing wipes hereafter. The cat plays there,” Marie told herself and got back to her keyboard.
She tried to concentrate and get her work done. When she looked up again, it was already half past twelve. She switched on her television and started washing some lettuce to make some salad for lunch.
Three experts were being interviewed in an outdoor setting. It is clear the virus jumped from the animal to the human, which animal is the question. Is it the bat or the pangolin?
The club was lit as usual with brightly coloured lamps and strobe lights, yet, it was barely visible to K, who could not see their colours with his grayscale vision. The photoreceptors of his optical sensors picked up the light and used that to make visible what he was focussing on, but colours were out of his remit.
As he sat on the stuffed high back chair of the booth, K barely managed to stop himself from gritting his pearly-white teeth while he waited. Stacked up chairs and tables littered one corner of the room and the digital infrared code of the ‘Emergency Exit’ sign straight ahead pinged his sensors.
The wall clock struck another hour off the day as Bobby, sitting opposite to him on the booth, snapped the end cap of a cigarillo, blatantly ignoring the ‘No Smoking’ sign above the bar to the right, and let out a puff of smoke that K could only sense by the ping of his sensors as they highlighted a potential hazard, and an unpleasant smell of the synthetic tobacco that suddenly filled the booth.
Bobby, an old contact of the resistance and owner of the club, was part of an exclusive circle of humans who had no qualms about dealing with the resistance, as long as they were paid. Bobby’s circle conducted business with both sides and stayed out of the way. Strict neutrality was the order of business — which meant one never knew whether a deal one made with him would be compromised by a deal someone else made with him.
For obvious reasons, the resistance only used Bobby when they had no other choice.
Bimal realized that his past ailment had started bothering him again. A collector had come knocking at his door after several months, her face half-covered in a mask. The pandemic had begun to recede slowly. Bimal greeted her and offered a few drops of hand sanitizer. That was then followed by other rituals to make her feel welcome. Previously, guests would be first greeted with a glass of water, followed by tea and some sweets, but the pandemic changed everything. Isabel, from Spain, in her sixties, sat stiffly, sifting through Bimal’s paintings.
His paintings have always been a blend of very bright colours, a bit unusual because the way he uses his palette is quite different from other artists. This is not his own opinion. Eminent critics have said so in several reviews. His canvas has always been a ferment of bright hues. There came a time, however, when he started losing colour. Almost twelve years ago, after his transfer to the steel foundry, colours started to fade. One’s job always affects one’s lifestyle and even one’s mind. His job was always at odds with his creative side. He was at the same time an artist and a worker in a locomotive factory. However, the new surroundings in the foundry were completely incompatible with his temperament.