This Is My Head

By Shome Dasgupta

Visiting sick and old relatives was the bulk of our trips to Kolkata.  One of my first memories of my mother's homeland was roughly 14 years ago, when I was seven years of age. I walked out of a candy store, and I was immediately surrounded by beggars.  These were not ordinary beggars though, these were kids who were the same age as me, some younger.  I had walked out of the shop unwrapping a Cadbury’s chocolate bar with almonds, and as soon as I was about to take my first bite, I felt arms tugging on my shoulders.  I felt a few pulls on my knees -- these were the legless ones. They were older, men and women, begging for some food, any food, for themselves or for their children.  This one man, with no legs, had a tuft of hair sprouting from the side of his head.  The few teeth in his mouth were black and yellow, crooked, looking like the fence in our backyard in Louisiana after a hurricane.  His arms were nubs, ashy and red. I couldn't remember his eyes--I never looked into them.  I gave him a piece of chocolate.  I gave them all some chocolate, but once I had given it all away, they continued to ask for more candy.  I wanted to go back inside with my parents to buy more chocolate for them, but mother told me to keep walking.  That event was my first memory of reality.

This trip is my latest memory of reality.  My mother rang the doorbell to Tumar Uncle’s rundown mansion. The house took up a whole block of Theatre Road, which was where most of my mother’s family lived.  The lady who opened the door wore a sari, which barely wrapped around her body, and large circular glasses framed in plastic brown.  Her hair was a mixture of grey and black, and it came down just below her shoulder.  Her sandals revealed five bruised and worn toes on each foot.

Mother asked if we could visit with Tumar Uncle.  She smiled and told us to come in.  We followed her through the living room, or one of the living rooms of the house.  The innards of Tumar Uncle’s mansion were covered in dust.  It smelled of mothballs, and incense, and the black smoke coming through the windows from the traffic made my eyes water. We walked upstairs and through several small hallways.  With each step, I wondered if the stairway would cave in--it was safer not to hold on to the railing. We continued to follow the lady and walked into a huge bedroom.  The bed didn't have any wrinkles, with its sheets neatly tucked under the mattress.  I opened one of the armoires, and just before my mother told me to close it with a stern voice, I saw a cockroach, as big as my ring finger, crawling on the inside wall.  Mother pointed out to me a young Tumar Uncle in one of the photos.  Another picture showed our relative’s wife, who had passed away five years ago.  My mother couldn't remember how she died, but thought that she had set herself on fire and burned to death.  We walked through the bedroom into a much smaller room which could easily have been a walk-in closet.  In it was only a small bed, a couple of chairs, and a bed table.  On the other side of the room was a door leading out to the balcony.  Tumar Uncle lay in the bed on top of his bed sheets. I felt my intestines unraveling as I looked at this rusted man.  I looked at him in glances, trying hard not to stare.  He still had a head full of black hair and an unwrinkled brown skin face.  I could smell the oils on his body he used to keep himself fresh.  He wore a white shirt, white pajama pants, and black sunglasses.  My father whispered in my ear to go out onto the balcony while they talked to him for a bit.  As I walked out, my mother asked Tumar Uncle to remove his sunglasses from his face.

“Who’s there?” Tumar Uncle said.

I walked past the bed, brushing against his snakeskin feet. My mother told me to give pronom before I went outside.  I touched his feet and then my forehead and chest to show my sign of respect for my elder, but Tumar Uncle didn’t say anything; he didn’t give me his blessing.  I sat outside on the balcony and looked out onto the field where children played cricket and badminton.  Kolkata summers were hot and without air conditioners.  I could feel the grime on the back of my neck spread to my back.  Though it was evening, the temperature would not drop until well into the night.

There were newly washed clothes hanging over clotheslines that ran from one side of the balcony railing to the other.  The scent of drying clothes was quite refreshing in contrast to the stench of the littered Kolkata streets -- the smell of rotten banana peels and cow manure.  The soap used to wash the clothes was nothing unusual, but I realized it smelled differently when the clothes were hung outside compared to when taken out of a dryer. The lazy breeze helped the scent to waver inside the balcony compartment.  Near my feet was a bucket full of marigolds, which was used for praying rituals.  There was also a broken armoire on the balcony, which I tried to open but the doors would not budge.  I could see the inhabitants who lived in the flats across from my uncle’s house.  A woman was cooking in the kitchen and shouting at a young girl for not washing her hands as she ate cookies.  The woman wore a dark blue gown, and her teeth shone.  Children played in the small field, as taxicabs and rickshaws bumped along the road, ignoring all pedestrians. 

Father came outside and asked me to visit with Tumar Uncle before we all left.  My father told me that while I was outside, my mother had to repeatedly explain to him who we were, and she had to ask him again and again to take off his sunglasses.  He didn’t take them off until after I had walked back into the room.  Tumar Uncle lifted his right hand, which was shaking, and removed his sunglasses.  It rattled until he placed the glasses on the bed.  His eyes were bloodshot and he stared into the space in front of him.  My mother and father sat on the bed beside him, and I sat on one of the chairs next to where he lay.

“It has been too long,” Tumar Uncle said.

He turned his head slowly, looked at my mother, and placed his left hand against her cheek for a few seconds.  My mother then guided his hand to the bed and held it.  Tumar Uncle again shifted his view from my mother’s face to the space directly ahead of him.  She spoke to him in a soothing voice, a voice that I had not heard since I was a crying child.  She told him about our trip here, and she spoke of her father’s health, which was becoming better.  She commented on the humid weather and the crowded streets.  Tumar Uncle didn't respond.  He didn't move his head, speak, or do anything else.  It was a silent illness.  My mother had mentioned earlier, that he became a hermit once his wife died, and she had heard that he had maybe left his house only a few times since the death of his wife.  He didn't talk to anyone.  He barely moved about, and he rarely spoke.  On the way to his room, the housekeeper had said that he had a huge bedroom, but chose to live in the smallest room of the house.

Tumar Uncle gazed into the space directly in front of him.  I glanced at the wall opposite of where he lay and noticed a picture on the wall.  The picture was full of colors and had a figure in the foreground.  I knew it was one of the Hindu gods, but I wasn't sure which one.  I asked my father, and he told me that the goddess was Kali, who was the goddess of destruction, and the derivation of Kolkata’s name.

Without turning his head, Tumar Uncle pointed to me and asked who I was.  My father placed his hand on my shoulder and told him that I was their son.

“You last saw him when he was two or three,” my mother said.  “He is our son.”

Tumar Uncle continued to point at me.

“His name is Rajesh,” my mother said.  “You used to hold him in your arms and play games with him. I remember how you would carry him on your shoulders.”

I had no recollection of being around him when I was a child, but from what my mother said, Tumar Uncle and I had spent a lot of time together.  He would put me on his shoulders and walk around the house, pretending that we were on some kind of adventure, or he would make up games for us to play.  The housekeeper entered the room and asked us if we wanted any drinks or some sweets.  My parents and I declined and Tumar Uncle remained motionless and speechless.

“Tumar-da,” the housekeeper said. “Would you like some lemon tea and biscuits?”

Tumar Uncle stared at the picture of Kali, as he rubbed his hand across his face as one does to see if a shave was needed.  He then slapped himself. 

“She is not my wife,” Tumar Uncle said.  “She is not Buli.”

“No,” mother said.  “She is not Buli Mashi.”

The housekeeper walked away mumbling to herself.

“Where is Buli,” Tumar Uncle asked.

He began to speak in English rather than in Bengali.

“Buli Mashi is not here,” mother said.  “She has passed on.”

“Dead,” Tumar Uncle said.

He repeated the word, but he said it in Bengali. 

“Sit here,” Tumar Uncle said.

He pointed at me. I looked at my parents, and they moved aside so I could sit next to him on the bed.  I walked up to the bed and remained standing.  Tumar Uncle grabbed and tugged my arm until I had no choice but to sit down.  His hand was cold and rough.  I couldn’t see any calluses on his palm, but it felt like it was covered with them.  The skin of his arm had a  thinness and papery texture.  It was almost transparent, and I imagined staring straight through his skin, observing a thick medium of black blood trickling towards his heart.  His breath smelled of cloves and tea, and I had to look away just to breathe.  As I sat closer to him, I saw some sadness in his haunting red eyes -- a whirlpool of decay within his pupils. I imagined entering these crumbling tunnels to see what was inside, and all I could envision was fiery intestines, lungs, and kidneys.  A hell within his body. 

“I am dead,” Tumar Uncle said. 

“You're still alive,” I managed to say.  “We are all here.  We are all living.”

My voice quivered.  His voice was scratchy and firm. 

“I am crazy,” Tumar Uncle said.  "Watch me corrode.” 

“We are all crazy,” I replied.

“I was once happy,” he said. “But now, I have nothing.  Buli is gone.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Buli Mashi is gone.”

“Dead,” Tumar Uncle said.  “I am just a cockroach.”

“We are all cockroaches.”

“No.  I am a cockroach.  Life won’t let me die. Look in the cupboards, the closets, I am there, praying to be taken.”

I remained silent until he spoke again.  He grabbed my arm again and placed it on top his head.  It was oily.  If I had put just enough pressure, I felt like I could just break through his skull.

“This is my head,” Tumar Uncle said.

I took his arm and placed it on top of my head.

“This is my head,” I said.

Tumar Uncle laughed and held my hand.  It sounded like a mixture of laughing, hyperventilating, crying, and coughing.  His eyes were wide open and he shook up and down as he lay on the bed.  His laugh became louder and he began to shriek as if he was being murdered.  He moved his head back and forth and flapped his arms up and down.  I stood, but I didn’t move away from the bed.  My parents took a step back and motioned me to get away, but I did not walk away.  I couldn’t walk away; I was frozen.  His hand was now clasped around mine.  This was what I could only imagine death felt like. 

I peeled his fingers off and placed his hand next to his body. Tumar Uncle clutched my arm again and pulled me close to his mouth, forcing me to sit down again.  Spit came out as he continued to cackle and cry.  His red eyes were producing tears that fell lazily from his eyes. 

“Why won’t they let me die,” Tumar Uncle shouted. 

I squinted my eyes and turned my face to the side so the spit did not enter my eyes.  A small amount of drool surrounded his mouth.  He moved my arm up and down and started to slap his own face with his other arm.  I placed my free hand against his cheek to cushion any damage done to his face.  The smacks stung my hand, and it began to throb immediately, reminding me how my father used to tell me that when he was in school in England, the teacher would slap their wrists with rulers whenever they were in trouble.  Both my parents tried to grab me, but I motioned to them to stay away.  My right leg shook, causing the bed to creak. 

Tumar Uncle stopped hitting himself, and my hand, but he continued to shake and cry.

“This is what I have become,” he said.  “A dying baby. Lonesome and crazy.”

I put my hand against his forehead and felt his sweat and the rising temperature of his body.  He stopped all his motions, and he stopped making any kind of sounds; he stared into the space before him as he was doing when we first entered the room.

“Sleep,” my mother said.  “Go to sleep and get some rest.”

My mother left the room to get the housekeeper.  My father stayed with me and we stood in silence.  The quietness was the kind that seeped into my skin and made me want to scream or jump.  A few minutes later, my mother came back with the housekeeper.  We said bye to Tumar Uncle, but he didn’t respond.  The housekeeper held a dampened handkerchief in her hand and a glass of water.  Both my parents walked out, and I followed. 

I turned around and looked at him one last time before I left, because I didn't think I would see him again.  He had already put his sunglasses back on his face.  As I walked through the door, I heard him speak.

“This is my head,” Tumar Uncle said.

Shome Dasgupta received an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University–Los Angeles. His fiction has recently appeared in Mud Luscious, Abjective, Paperwall, Willows Wept Review, Bartleby Snopes, The Kartika Review, and Word Riot. His poetry and nonfiction has appeared in Magma Poetry, Shelf Life Magazine, The Footnote, Poetic Voices Without Borders 2, and The Sylvan Echo. He lives in Lafayette, LA, and spends time chewing sunflower seeds and drinking orange juice.

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