At the time the boy had no idea that this was the last thing they were doing as a family.
He was the one who had discovered the pigeon. It was plump and seemed canny, and sat immobile for hours in the pot behind the tall plant on the ledge of the kitchen window. Intermittently it snapped its head from side to side as though alert to prying eyes or danger, ‘Ma, Ma! Mamma!’ he shrieked, taking care to let his breath out only when he was out of the kitchen. He ran full tilt across the living room where his father sat reading, and into his parents’ bedroom.
Usually he would have first attracted his father’s attention on seeing something out of the ordinary. But this was something out of the ordinary in the kitchen, and that was his mother’s domain; his father tended to affect ignorance about what happened inside the kitchen although he showed great keenness and occasional appreciation for what emerged from it. Besides, his father had seemed distracted and irritable for some days now. Must be the office.
Mrs Malini Chaudhuri turned from the French windows that ran along the length of one of the bedroom walls. She was looking at the bank of green that they could see from their twelfth-floor apartment, the waxy iridescence imparted to the leaves by a spell of sunlight after a fierce shower. This view was one of the reasons why they had chosen to rent this place so many years ago. They could barely afford it then. Now the fact that they had been hard pressed to rent it as well as the memory that they had taken together, she and her husband, in amicable intimacy, such a crucial decision, seemed impossibly distant, almost impossible. For years, the rent had no longer pinched. But they knew that, with a single income, however generous, they would not, like most of their neighbours, ever be able to buy this apartment. They were merely tenants; nonetheless, 12A, Imperial Heights, had come to represent their notion of a home of their own.
The weather was of the indecisive sort that can’t make up its mind about whether to be sunny and cloudy. She inhaled the moistness in the air.
‘Arnab, be careful, don’t upset the vase. What it is it?’
The boy would not tell her. His hair flopping (Malini made a mental note about his haircut), he dragged his mother to the kitchen and, silent, tense with expectation and excitement, pointed at the pigeon.
The bird paid them no attention. It shifted slightly on the mound of soil beneath the plant, its back to the raised brown rim of the pot, snug.
‘She will lay eggs there, Arnab. Don’t disturb her,’ Malini said. The boy stifled a squeal, unable to quite believe that this drama was unfolding in their kitchen. ‘Take a photo with your phone, Mama, take a photo. Right now.’
He tumbled out of the kitchen and, standing in the hallway, did a fist pump.
‘Yay’. He skipped into the living room to tell his father.
When Samrat Chaudhuri ambled into the kitchen with Arnab tiptoeing in front of him, Malini was draining pasta at the sink. They held each other’s gaze for a moment, but did not speak. ‘Lunch will be ready at one,’ said Malini, looking at the sieve. These days, especially in front of their son, they found it hard to look at each other when they spoke. It was as though they were both complicit in a betrayal: ashamed of the fact that things had come to this; disappointed that they had; and guilty that they had not yet been able to bring themselves to be forthright with the boy.
As Samrat and Arnab neared the window, the bird plumped up her feathers.
‘Ah, we’ll have eggs soon, Arnab. Would you like to eat the eggs?’
The boy looked up, bewildered. ‘I want to see the chicks hatch.’
Samrat ruffled his son’s hair. Arnab had grown taller over the past year. He now came up to Samrat’s waist. He nuzzled his father’s stomach. Samrat held him close, rather too tight, and for rather too long. The boy had to extricate himself after a little while.
The eggs arrived two days later. It was a Tuesday. Arnab rang up his father. Samrat was in the middle of a meeting with an important client who said the advertising creative for a new shampoo was too cluttered and the copy didn’t quite communicate how unique the product was. ‘Excuse me, sorry,’ he said, glad for the interruption, and stepped out of the conference room.
‘Baba, the eggs are here. I saw them.’
‘Why are you speaking in a whisper? I can barely hear.’
‘Because I don’t want to scare her.’
‘Can’t you walk out on to the balcony?’
Silence. ‘Yes, I am in the balcony now. I can’t believe it. One of them is slightly brownish. In bits. There is something on it. I don’t know what that is. The other one is pure white.’
Samrat smiled. ‘Good. I’ll see them when I am home.’
‘No, it will be too dark then to see them then. That’s why I am describing them to you.’
‘Oh, thanks. I’ll see them tomorrow, in that case.’
‘I’ve got to go. I’m sorry.’
‘No, one moment, Baba… When will the chicks come out?’
‘You need to be patient. We may not get chicks. Let’s see if we are lucky.’
‘Why don’t all eggs give chicks? Baba?’
‘Look, I’ve got to go. Ask Mamma. Where is she?’
‘On the other phone. Discussing homework with Paul’s mum.’
‘I see. All right, see you in the evening.’ Samrat walked back to the charged atmosphere of the conference room. He could see Malini, her legs folded beneath her, a pen in hand, sitting close to the window, sorting out the homework. Her hair must have in it the gleam of the afternoon sun.
From that afternoon, Arnab began to have his breakfast and lunch in the kitchen. He would eat standing up at the counter, alongside the sink, elevated by a small stool to the height that was just right for him. As he ate, he looked at the pigeon, observing her every little movement, keeping an eye on the eggs when she adjusted her body.
On Friday, the first egg hatched. Arnab returned from school to see something tiny and brown, quite unlike a bird, quite unlike the chicks he had seen in his picture books when he was smaller, on the soil. It had no beak. You could hardly tell one part of its body from another. You could hardly tell that it had a body, or parts. Shells lay all around it, and the fluffy thing was largely covered by its mother most of the time.
The second, identical chick he spotted after breakfast on Saturday. Arnab’s mother began to complain that it was getting to be impossible to drag him out of the kitchen. He stopped playing with his friends downstairs; he offered to do his homework in the kitchen, in the manner in which he ate, standing on a stool beside the sink with his exercise book on the counter.
‘We’ll have to tell him. How long can we go on like this?’ Malini said on Saturday night. She was dabbing, in precise, firm, circular motions, moisturiser – and a host of other unguents – on her face. She still looked about ten years younger than her thirty-six. Samrat gave her a look, a quick one, in the mirror.
‘But he is so absorbed with those birds. Let’s see what happens to them. Let that excitement subside a bit.’
‘Yes, it would be a shame to hit him with this now.’ Malini sighed.
Caring for these birds was the last thing they were doing as a family, they both knew. They did not know whether they were glad that it had allowed them to put off announcing to Arnab the news of their impending separation. They had no idea if he sensed anything. He was a very bright child. But he had not let on. And they couldn’t dare guess how he would take it.
Samrat and Malini now slept on either side of their kingsized bed, each towards one edge, curled up on their sides, their backs to each other, taking up as little space as possible. It seemed as though they were conscious, even while asleep, that it would not do to face each other, far less drift towards one another. They had bought separate blankets some weeks ago.
Sometimes, when during the course of moving around in the flat, they inadvertently touched one another, they said sorry. They supposed that this is not how it would be later, in the years to come when they had reconciled themselves to the event; they imagined, both of them, that they would be friendly to each other, that they would be mature, and that they would both be there for Arnab. He mustn’t suffer on account of their folly. Now, in the weeks of adjusting to a state that was a new actuality, but, still withheld from their son, wasn’t yet an official one, wasn’t quite real, they floundered and were diffident with each other.
As they had had for years, they still had drinks and a home cooked special dinner together on Saturday nights. They continued to uphold the custom as much for the sake of the boy – who, if both his parents were at home, had never seen them deviate from this ritual – as from a sense of habit or even from a want of anything else to do. And on some of these occasions, after the coffee, one of them would unselfconsciously put his or her hand on the other – an unspoken code that meant no, I will wash the mugs, no, I will put out the breakfast things for tomorrow. In those moments, Samrat and Malini felt as if they were together mourning the demise of something that was once more precious to them than anything else. Mourning, but from a sort of distance; grieving for something that they had deliberately given up rights to grieve over any longer. Back in the bedroom, out of sight of their son, they would retreat to their separate sides of the bed. Once they would cleave to each other. Now they had been cleaved apart.
How had it come to this?
How did it? How does something come to be something else? Is it really possible to know when the thing itself is changing all the time?
Samrat and Malini had tried. They had tried to parse it, break it down, find reasons, find solutions, procrastinated, been in denial. And in the end, after so many years, so many years of trying, they had to acknowledge it. There was no escape from it any longer. And what it came down to was three words: It wasn’t working. Whatever ‘it’ was. There had been no obvious betrayal. Or at least no obvious betrayal concerning someone of the opposite gender. After the fights, after the negotiations, after the attempts to fix what was evidently broken, they had merely arrived at the end of something. Mutual incompatilbity, the courts called it. Not a bad phrase. As vague as it was accurate. Why not, when, one of the reasons why one married was the vague and accurate hope of mutual compatibility?
But not even now, at this stage when they were as weary of what it had come to as wary of what lay ahead, could they explain either to themselves or to each other exactly how it had come to this.
Each of us remembers the same story in different ways.
The chicks were beginning to look like chicks. They had eyes now, and small, pointed orange beaks. They had lost much of their down, but had not yet acquired plumage, and still did not resemble their mother. Arnab would sometimes spot them on their own during the afternoon, concealed behind the plant, and notice the mother return towards the evening. He watched her feed them, transferring food to their beaks from her own. Often, there would be more food around them, on the cold soil, and all over the kitchen ledge, than inside them. And the ledge and the plates and cups put out there to dry would be full of feathers they had shed.
‘They are a real nuisance,’ Malini said in exasperation one afternoon. ‘This place stinks, and it is filthy beyond belief. The maid has to wash all the utensils twice over.’ She glared at Arnab, as though it was all somehow his fault. Arnab said nothing. He gave his mother a look made up in equal parts of bemusement and reproach.
He began to notice another pigeon paying them the occasional visit. ‘That must be the father. He has begun to come to visit,’ Arnab told Malini. ‘Where was he all this while? Do you think the chicks miss their father? He comes only so seldom.’
He gave them names, Franny and Zooey, picked up from a book of Samrat’s that was lying face down on the coffee table. He could tell one apart from the other. Franny was the swifter learner, and the faster grower. It began to waddle around before Zooey could (‘Looks like Shane Warne coming into bowl,’ Samrat said to Arnab, and they both laughed aloud at the joke.). It started to flap its wings with energy and eagerness as Zooey looked on, silent and still.
‘They will grow up and fly away soon, Arnab,’ Malini said one night over dinner. She did not look at Samrat. She knew that he wouldn’t look up from his plate. And she knew he knew why she had said that, how their departure would mean that they would no longer be able to postpone telling their son about their now-cleaved life – and his.
Rakesh, their driver, knew something was seriously amiss, that something had gone gravely wrong in the household in which he now felt so much at home. Samrat, who would previously only grunt the names of places to which he wanted to be driven to, would suddenly become loquacious, asking him about his father or when he next wanted to visit his mother in the village in Uttar Pradesh in which she lived or how the plans for his sister’s wedding were coming along.
Malini, for so long the fulcrum around which his working day revolved, had become withdrawn, taciturn. She seemed mostly distracted. Through his rear view mirror, Rakesh could see her looking out of the window, and not patting her hair back after it had become windblown. She still went on shopping expeditions, but she rarely emerged, even if laden with those huge bags, with her face flushed with pleasure. No longer would she solicit his opinion on which route to take. Instead, rather like Samrat in the old days, she would simply say where she wished to go. Once, when Rakesh asked her if she preferred one route to the other, she said: ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, let’s just get there as quickly as we can.’
Zooey became infected with something towards the middle of the following week. They couldn’t be sure what it was because they couldn’t get too close to them. On their approach, the mother would flap her wings, and turn around, full of a resolve and aggression they had not seen in her before. Zooey’s body seemed full of ticks or lice or something like that. In a day, it spread to Franny.
The maggots arrived soon after. They were followed by crows, crowds of them, keeping their distance but cawing and flapping around, sometimes alighting on the ledge to see what was happening behind the tall plant. Zooey had learnt by fly by now, but seemed too enfeebled to try. Franny could muster merely an unsteady shuffle. Other pigeons came in to roost around the plant, as though on a vigil. The mother rarely left her chicks. The bird that Arnab thought of as the father – although he could no longer be sure given that there were so many of them, so many that the ledge seemed to be not big enough – came to visit more often. And all the time, there was the cacophony of the crows, lunging and leaving, taunting and daring the pigeons with their harsh cries.
Arnab no longer ate standing up in the kitchen. He did his homework in his own room, but in the afternoons, the rustling and flapping, the overturning of the odd utensil and the cawing, upset him. When he peeped at the little birds on whom he had invested so much time and emotion, he felt frightened: the ferocity of the crows scared him; the pigeons, so many in number, panicked yet determined, were no longer a source of curiosity or cause for delight; and Franny and Zooey, smothered and ugly, their bodies diseased, seemed nothing like the birds he had christened so recently.
‘Those chicks. We can’t go on like this. The kitchen is a mess. And I am worried that Arnab might catch something from all that filth,’ Malini said one evening later that week. ‘The filth is all over the utensils.’
‘But how can we get rid of them?’ Samrat asked, his voice low, something in it between timidity and apprehension.
‘I know what to do.’ Malini usually did.
On the way to school the following morning, she told Arnab that they could no longer have the pigeons on the ledge. She explained what they would do with the chicks. She said it in her kind but firm voice, a voice that suggested she knew it would be hard for Arnab, hard for all of them, but that there was no choice but to do the hard thing. Arnab knew the tone well. He knew that when his mother used it, it meant that she would brook no discussion about the matter at hand.
‘But if we leave Franny and Zooey downstairs, will the cats get them?’
‘Let’s hope not, Arnab.’
‘Zooey can at least fly. Franny can’t. What about Franny?’
‘They each will have to make their own luck, just as all of us do.’
As Rakesh slid the car into its parking slot after they had got home, Malini asked him to come upstairs. She told him what needed to be done.
Rakesh was good at these things. He was fearless and dexterous. He had once killed a rat that was wreaking havoc in the Chaudhuris’ apartment. The rat had eluded the watchman for three days.
Malini could not bear to watch. She went to the bedroom and put on Kishori Amonkar as Rakesh entered the kitchen. Amid the flapping and shrieking, Rakesh grasped one chick, took it downstairs, left it concealed behind the rainwater pipe. He came back upstairs, picked up the other one, and left it next to its sibling. The mother had left the nest as soon as Rakesh had picked up the first chick. He did not see her when he was done with leaving Franny and Zooey downstairs.
When Arnab came home that afternoon, the ledge had been scrubbed clean. The plant and its pot had been thrown away. Silent, the boy stood for a long time and stared at the empty space. The sun glared through the window.
It seemed to him like the end of something. He did not yet know what it was the beginning of.
Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of Hindustan Times, Mumbai. He is the author of five books of fiction, non-fiction and memoir.