When I sit down with my first cup of tea in the morning, the city is still asleep. I hear the same sounds every day: my wife’s gentle snores as she lies asleep on our bed, the neighbor’s air-conditioner working hard, gurgling water as it breathes out air, the bristles of a sweeper’s broom against the concrete of the street outside. At six in the morning, I hear the large clock at St. Joseph’s School ring six times. That’s when I leave the house for work.
Almost five years ago, as I was waiting to hear that clock ring, I heard an unfamiliar sound: the doorbell. I had heard my own doorbell ring before, but at that hour, it sounded peculiar, obtrusive.
I abandoned my cup of tea and went to the door. With my hand on the doorknob, I rehearsed a reprimand: “Why are you ringing a gentleman’s bell at this hour?” I had decided that I would be very firm. But as soon as I opened the door, I swallowed those words. The man who was at my door, before six in the morning, looked just like me.
The stranger had large ears with attached earlobes. I had often looked for those ears in crowds. When I saw a pair of them, I allowed myself to dream. I dreamed that the owner of the ears would find me, come up to me, pick me up and hold me in his arms. He would say, “You are mine,” and then, I would be his. When I was ten, I saw a man at the fruit market with those same ears and my fat lower lip. I waded through the crowd and grabbed his hand so tightly that Naren and Rimi, my adoptive parents, had to drag me away, apologizing to the large-eared shopper. I left the imprints of my nails on his hands.
That morning five years ago, the stranger who stood at my door didn’t just have those large ears. He had my wide-based, blunt nose, my thin upper and fat lower lip, my dimpled chin. He could have been my twin if he hadn’t looked ten years older than I. As he stood there, I stared into the eyes hidden behind thick brown spectacles with bifocal lenses. This was no coincidence.
“Anaadar?” He knew my name.
“Yes.” I replied.
“I am here quite early,” he continued in a clear and melodic voice. “I apologize for that.” He shook my hand with a pleasant, sturdy grip. “My name is Umesh Choudhury. I am the brother of the late Prabeen Choudhury.” As I looked at him, I remembered my days at the Shishu Bhaban Orphanage. They had all called me Choudhury there.
“Prabeen Choudhury is, of course, your father,” he said. I wondered if I could accept that—“father” without the preceding “biological.”
My first instinct was to ask why he hadn’t come looking for me earlier. I would have shouted that question at him as a young-blooded twenty-year-old. Then I remembered that I was a fifty-five-year-old married man. I closed my front door behind me, matched Umesh’s soft tone, and asked, “So, how did you find me?”
Umesh seemed grateful for this question. I had given him an easy one. “Oh, let’s see,” he said. “My son works at the phone company and you can look people up by their first name on the computers. Anaadar is a unique name.” He cleared his throat and told me all about the technology. His son had typed in the seven letters of my first name and hit a button, and that’s all it took. That’s how far away I was from them: seven letters and the click of one button.
I wondered why my uncle had suddenly come to see me. Why are you here? I ought to have asked. In that moment, though, the question had seemed rude. “Would you like me to bring you a cup of chai?” I asked.
“No,” he responded. “No, that’s okay. You see, I was hoping you could come to your father’s funeral this afternoon.” He said the words quickly. Then he stood up tall and his body looked stiff again. I had not imagined my father would be so freshly dead.
“Why do you want me there?” I asked.
“I want you there,” he replied, “because your father wanted you there.” He pulled out a piece of paper from his front pocket. It was a Xerox copy of a typewritten letter, written in English. “I thought you might want to read this.” I took the letter from him and bade him farewell. “I will try to be there,” I said, “but I might not make it.” He told me he understood. He did not try to coax me.
As Umesh turned to get into his car, I asked him the question that had been bubbling in my brain since I heard the words late Prabeen Choudhury. “Umesh,” I called out, “is my mother alive?” He shook his head. “No, son,” he said. “She died as you were being born.” He got into his little red sedan and drove away.
I went inside. That was the first time I really looked at that letter in my hand. I could not read English, so I could not read it. You may think it was stupid of me to not tell Umesh that. I should have asked him to read the letter to me. But there he had stood under the tin roof that covered my doorway, looking at my dull, cheap shirt, looking at my greasy nose and my small house. He saw that I owned no car and had no air-conditioning. He saw that my wristwatch had a plastic band and that the gold film that covered the buckle of my belt had chipped away to reveal the rusted metal underneath. At least he believed I had gotten a quality education.
I sat and finished my cup of tea. I only realized that I was late for work when my wife came out of our bedroom and asked me why I had not left. “I suppose I did not hear the clock go off,” I said. I don’t remember what I was thinking about right then, but my wife had brought me out of a daydream. I finally heard the rain on my tin roof. It sounded like drums beating.
“Your umbrella is broken, dear,” my wife said. We looked for resealable plastic bags in the kitchen together and my wife found one that had originally held Sunflower oil. She had washed it and kept it safely for a rainy day. I packed my wallet and watch and the letter in it. I slipped on another plastic bag over my head.
“I’ll be off then,” I told her, wondering if I should mention the invitation to the funeral. I decided not to.
“Was there someone at the door this morning?” she asked as I was leaving, as though she could sense that I had a secret.
“Oh. Yes,” I said. “Someone who knew my father.”
She said, “Is it someone I know?”
My father, I had said, knowing she would think of Naren. “No, it wasn’t someone you know.” I wondered if she would have told me not to go to the funeral. Now that she knows, she says she doesn’t know what she would have done.
Calcutta was still asleep when I stepped onto its streets. The rain had kept my potential customers in their beds a little longer. The rainwater felt heavy on my shirt. I remember feeling overwhelmed and exhausted after the short brisk walk, but at least I reached my establishment quickly. My small chai stall—it had been encroaching on the same piece of pavement for the last sixty years. I looked up at the sign and remembered, for the ninetieth time, that I needed to change it. It read, “Naren’s Chai and Snacks.” In reality, it had been “Anaadar’s Chai and Snacks” for the last three months, but I’d never gotten around to making that change.
Even though I was at least a half hour late, my helper-boys had not arrived. They were perpetually late. Arun was late as a sign of disrespect. Ajit wanted to be there on time but was just unable to do so.
I opened the packet of Sunflower oil and put on my watch. I unlocked the stall and placed my wallet and the letter on the back shelf, away from prying hands. I brought out the eggs and the milk and set the first pot of chai on the stove.
Now, as then, I always have to do this work myself, but typically, it’s all I do. The years are catching up with me. Once the boys take over, I sit on the bench next to the stall. I built the bench myself, when I was twenty, out of wood and bricks. The bricks had changed and the wood had changed, but I always tell customers, “The idea of constructing it is still mine!” I sit on that bench and talk to my customers. How are their wives and children? What news of their jobs and grandchildren? Have they tried the new cookies at my store? They come back for the conversation, I think.
On that day, I did a lot more than just set up. I thought I could work all day—stand by the stove and make egg-toasts and put on pot after pot of tea, clean dishes—and no one would notice that I was trying to avoid conversation. I felt it was working too, for a bit. Arun came in first and saw me working. He didn’t say a thing. He just poured himself a cup of tea, found the morning newspapers, sat down on the bench, and said, “When you need someone to do the dishes, just call me.”
Ajit came in a bit later—I saw him running as he turned the street corner, his spindly legs flailing. When he arrived, he was out of breath. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry, because today I am really late. Really late.” Ajit is a sweet boy. As he caught his breath, he looked at me with all of my work, at Arun, who was reading the newspapers like a customer, then back at me, before he said, “Is everything alright with you?” I nodded, without looking up at him. My eyes were beginning to fill with memories.
Ajit washed dishes by my side; I could feel his burning gaze against my right cheek. He never looked away. My clients looked up at me and said, “Excellent chai, Naren, can we have another?” They didn’t know my name. “Aw-naa-dor,” I said out loud for them, under my breath.
It felt strange to even say my own name with that letter sitting behind me. I couldn’t read it, but I knew it held the single truth of how I was who I was. That letter would know why I was called Anaadar.
Naren and Rimi didn’t know my name when they decided to adopt me. Naren fell in love with me for my gray eyes. They were just like Rimi’s. I was seven when they first met me, sitting in a corner of the orphanage’s common room. Other children were drawing and dancing, but it felt like they weren’t really doing it for themselves. As prospective parents walked through our halls, every expression of joy felt like a show. Naren saw me sitting quietly and called Rimi over. “Look, Rimi,” he said, “our son could have your beautiful eyes.” A few days later, they took me home. They knew my name by then.
Less than a week after I had moved into their home, Naren sat down by my side and asked me the question. “Anaadar, perhaps we should change your name?” I did not want to change my name. I did not want to tell Naren why, either. I had held a fantasy close to my heart, from the age of four, and for a longer time than I care to admit. My name, I used to think, had clues hidden within it, planted by my real parents so they could find me when I was older. Change your name, he said, and I looked down at the new clothes they had carefully selected for me, and I felt the oil they had rubbed into my scalp, and the orderly manner in which Rimi had parted my hair into two distinct sections, and I screamed. I was not the scruffy little boy I had once been at the orphanage, and I screamed for everything that boy was losing.
I sobbed loudly, filling my cavernous lungs with large draws of breath after every sob. I leaked water by the pint. And then, through my teary-eyed gaze, I saw Naren hide behind Rimi. I saw him clasp her hand and fix his gaze on her shoulder. He let me cry for a while and then he came up to me and whispered, “Please, please stop, the neighbors will think we’re killing you. You can have your name. We want you to have what you want, that’s all.” I cried for many more hours, but I lowered the decibel.
The day I found out what my name meant, I wished I had let Naren change it. An older boy had spat the meaning at me at school. I crouched in a corner, waiting for my body to stop hurting. I had started the battle, and I had been beaten.
“Neglect, you little shit,” my attacker told me. “Someone decided to give you a name that means neglect. You won’t be loved or respected. Think about that the next time you call someone else a goddamn bastard.”
I went to the library before I went to the bathroom. I walked in with my bloody nose and asked for the Bengali dictionary. I knew he was right, and yet, I had to confirm it: “Anaadar (n): neglect, without courtesy or affection.”
I wondered, then, if I had been carted into the orphanage nameless. I decided that I had come in with a dozen other children. I had come in with barely any flesh, frail skin, brittle bones. I was destined to die. Maybe the nun who received me had named me. She saw that I would be neglected, and so she named me Anaadar.
I remember the day I stole a large hunk of bread from the corner store. I was fourteen and hungry. I ate it on my way home, the flour leaving its incriminating trace on my face. I walked into the apartment, still chewing on the last piece of bread. Naren and Rimi were home.
“Where did you get that?” Naren asked me.
“At the store,” I said.
“Did you pay for it?” he asked me. I remember clearly how angry that question made me. Naren knew I could not pay for the bread, and still, he asked me.
“Yes,” I said. “I paid for it.” But Naren knew the truth; he raised his hand and struck me on my jaw.
I wondered that day if my parents had died when I was born. Their car crashed into the side of a bridge, they tumbled down a hill while flying kites, slid down the slick stairs of their house, suffered a bout of dengue in tandem. They went into a hospital, damaged goods. The doctors, quickly realizing they had three lives to save and not two, tore open my mother and extricated me. As I wailed in my new crib, my parents died their unfortunate and inevitable deaths. The doctor looked down at me. Knowing what was to come, he scrawled the name Anaadar onto my birth certificate before filling in their death certificates.
When I stepped out of my daydream, I heard Naren crying audibly in the kitchen, but I did not forgive him.
The day I had to stop going to school, the headmaster gave me a letter to take to my father. I carried it in a sealed envelope in my backpack and wondered what it said. I still don’t know what the letter said, but I remember what I thought it said: “If your son wasn’t such a nincompoop, he might have had half a shot at life. Sadly for you and your wife, this doesn’t seem likely.” I gave the letter to Naren. Perhaps they should have waited for another gray-eyed boy, I thought.
I wondered, then, if I had been thrown away. Perhaps my father had looked at my hideous little face when I was born and decided he wanted something better for his wife. He had wrapped me up and left me in a garbage truck, yanking the numbered bracelet off my wrist. Maybe he had placed that bracelet around the hand of some pristine girl that lay silently in some abandoned crib.
Naren hugged me when he finished reading the letter. “It’s okay,” he told me, “you can come work for me.”
When I lay down with a woman for the first time, I was twenty-two, and she was committing a sin. As we lay there in the aftermath of her mistake, I pondered mine. Had I passed something onto her that I could not take responsibility for? She returned to her husband and her family soon after, and I lay in bed naked, wondering if I had perpetuated misery. I wondered if my mother had taken a lover too, and if her child had been born with her lover’s eyes.
Five years ago, as I stood behind my chai stall, I still didn’t know the whole truth of what had happened to me, just that my father had known my name. That my mother had died as I was being born. The letter knew everything else. And my father was going to be burned in the afternoon. He had wanted me to be there.
At about half past ten that morning, I had no customers. That’s when I picked up the letter and sat on the bench. Arun was a few yards away, smoking a cigarette. Ajit was stacking clean tumblers. I was sitting and staring at the piece of paper.
Ajit knew I could not read English, but he never bothered to make me admit it. “Here, hand that to me,” he would say, whenever he saw a piece of paper with unfamiliar letters in my hand. “You’re straining your eyes.”
I let Ajit have the letter.
“Don’t read it,” I told him, and Ajit frowned. “Don’t read it out loud, that is.”
“Okay?” Ajit said.
“I just have a few questions. Can you answer them for me?”
“Yes,” Ajit began to read the letter. “Prabeen is writing this letter, Anaadar. He’s writing it to Umesh.”
“Did he name me? Did he give me the name Anaadar?” I asked.
Ajit scanned the words quickly. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, Prabeen did.” He found the words and read them: “The name I gave him was cruel, so you might understand why I didn’t tell you about him earlier.”
“Why does he want me at his funeral?”
“I realize, as I grow older, that I cannot do without his forgiveness. I shall never attain eternal peace without his forgiveness.”
“Why didn’t he try to contact me before this?” Ajit flipped the page and saw that there was nothing on the other side. He shrugged.
“Should I go?” I asked him. The answer to this was not in the letter, but Ajit was looking down at it anyway. I had not asked my wife if I ought to go. I had scarcely asked myself if I should go, and now, here I was, asking a seventeen-year-old boy. He laid down the letter and pulled up the bag that was sitting at his feet. He opened it, found his lighter, and flicked it.
“Let’s burn this piece of paper,” he said, dangling the letter dangerously close to the open flame. I took the letter out of his hand.
“Should I go?” I asked again.
“No,” he said. “It won’t matter whether you’re there or not. He’s a dead man you don’t know in a city of four million people.”
As I walked to the crematorium, I remembered walking the very same route the day Naren died. I cried then, for him and for Rimi.
The day I came home with my wife for the first time, we were both twenty-three, and she was nervous. She had lowered her eyes in fear. She was afraid my parents wouldn’t approve of her. “Not approve of you?” I had asked her, incredulously. “They took in this big good-for-nothing oaf and loved him endlessly. How could they not love you?”
Rimi had smiled at this awkward girl, and with a touch of her finger, lifted up my wife’s chin and banished her fears. She had welcomed her to the family. Naren had wrapped his arm around me and given my shoulder a loving squeeze. “You’ve done well, boy,” he told me.
There were at least twenty people huddled around Prabeen’s body at the crematorium. I only knew Umesh. It had taken some work to get to this corpse. The mourners howled and wailed, their white clothes colored by the mud puddles created by the morning rain. I had looked just like them the day Naren died.
I waded through their sweat and tears. The smell of vomit and charred flesh hung in the air. Amidst the sea of white clothing, I was dressed in a green-and-blue checkered shirt and brown pants. I was calm.
When I approached Prabeen’s incinerator, I saw his body laid out on the ground. A little old woman crouched beside it and moaned loudly. Umesh looked at me and said, “Oh, Anaadar, you decided to come.” He gestured for me to come closer: “This is Anaadar.”
They all turned to look at me.
Ajit had been wrong. It mattered a great deal whether I was there or not. I was the scandal. The one the neighbors would talk about the next day. They had to be gracious to me, for although I was Prabeen’s mistake, I was his family’s mess.
“You are Anaadar?” his younger son asked.
“Yes,” I said, “I am. What is your name?”
“Indra” he said. Indra—the warrior king of the heavens. “I’m sorry for what he did,” he said, eyes sullen.
At funerals, people sing in praise of the dead. At Prabeen’s, no one could say a good word about him without apologizing to me in the same breath. His wife was the only one who crouched beside him and said, “He was a good husband. He was a good, good man.” She thanked me for forgiving him even though I had said nothing of forgiveness. The rest stood around, talking about logistics.
“When are we going to tip the ashes into the Ganga?” Umesh asked Indra. The corpse lay in front of them, unburnt.
“This evening, I think, if he burns before sundown.” Indra responded. “Best to not drag this out.”
The priest chanted the first hymns and then looked up. “Who is the eldest son?” Indra locked eyes with me, and asked that I go forward. Eyes brimming with tears, he said, “He wanted you to perform his last rites.” I had performed the duties of the eldest son at Naren’s funeral. I had dropped clarified butter into his open mouth and lit him on fire. In doing so, I had given him the best hope of escaping the cycle of rebirth and attaining eternal happiness. As I had set fire to Naren, my insides felt twisted. Rimi and my wife had sobbed heavily beside me. We cried for the man we knew and loved.
Prabeen’s family looked on as a stranger dropped butter into Prabeen’s mouth. They stood awkwardly around me, while Indra yelped and cried. Then they all cried. They cried for themselves. The man they knew and loved had never really existed. He had done to Indra and his family in death what he had done to me in life. He had made it hard for them to love him.
I set fire to him.