This story was written to a competitive prompt on #ArtoonsInn for the #Navarasa competition.
Prompt – Your protagonist travels to a new country for the first time. What emotion takes over their life?
I chose disgust’ as an emotion.
Change is hard. But relocation – that’s harder, because it robs you of everything that makes ‘a place’ … ‘the place’, for you.
I hate change. Give me the same old, same old, any day and I’ll happily follow the mundane hum of my routine – without complaint! What I love is sameness. Oh, and I also love the ‘F’ word. No, no … not that ‘F’ word! Jeez! Seriously people!! Tame that perverted thinking. What I mean is – ‘F’ for food – the one true love of my life and abundant in its variety in Kolkata. You see, I may not be a Bengali by caste but sure am by taste.
Oh, and I also loves scents. No, stupid … not fragrances! Arrgh, how clueless can you be? It’s like explaining things to a slow infant. Now focus! Keep up with the narrative.
As I was saying, I love scents as in ‘smell’. Get it now? Good. And, the smells of Kolkata – oooooh, they smack your nose with their spicy, tangy scrumptiousness. Kolkata is a gastronomic paradise. It smells of mutton kathi-rolls, chicken dum-biryani, mughlai keema-paranthas and, fish (my favourite) … marinated in spices and deep-fried in hot, flavourful mustard oil. Heavenly! This city is chock-full of pop-up stalls selling fried fish. And, the aroma that wafts … aaaah, it’s a delight for both the nose and the tummy. We Kalkattawala’s are big-time foodies, no? For us, food is passion. But, fish … ah, that’s an emotion, one that I feel deeply.
What is it that they say? Home is not a place. Home is the tastes and smells of a place. Well, for me that place … home … is Kolkata – was Kolkata.
A few months back…
‘So, it’s final. We are shifting…’
What is Daddy telling Mummy? Shifting?
When? Where? Why?
This is awful, awful news! How can you break bad news before lunch? Huh, now I’ve lost my appetite! And, I wasn’t even consulted!? So typical! It’s always the same in this house. Huh, I am never included in decision making … makes me feel so insignificant … so unwanted. I bet I won’t be consulted even after I am all grown up. Admit it – it’s because I am adopted, isn’t it?
And, why are we shifting? What’s wrong with here?
I love it here. I love our house with its huge balcony on the 8th floor. I love the park and all my friends. I love our neighbours … okay, okay … maybe not all the neighbours. Das auntie – her I loathe! No, don’t cringe at my lack of manners. I was taught well but, you don’t know Das auntie! She stinks … ugh, like literally! One whiff and a person could gag on their own vomit! No, no … no exaggeration, I swear. I would know! It’s me she squashes against her unwashed bosom to ply with odious kisses full of spittle. Eeewww … so gross! And, don’t even get me started on her rancid breath. Yech! That smells like the faecal waste sewer at the back of our building. I would know that too!! I once accidently tripped into with my mouth open. Yuck! It was utterly revolting! Awk … the memory still makes my stomach churn. I stank for a week. And, I couldn’t eat for days. Not even the aroma of Mummy’s fried fish could erase the gutter’s foul stench imprinted on me. Chee!
And, you know what, it’s not like turning my face away from Das auntie’ bosom is any better. Where would I face – towards her hairy armpits? Oooof! They stink worse than her farts! A person can pass out near those. Gosh, I’m five and even I clean up better than her. Seriously!
If I didn’t have such good manners, I would tell auntie – don’t pick me up and don’t kiss me! Ugh, it’s so belittling, not to mention downright offensive! I know that I am short and chubby for my age and also irresistibly cute (not kidding here!) but, is that a license to molest me? Gawd! Have some control!
‘Meethun, why do you look so constipated? Should I take you potty?’
Eew, Mummy … no! I’m not a baby anymore. You don’t need to take me. I can clean myself up, thank you very much!
Now, I know what you are thinking – if I abhor the woman so much, why don’t I hide when she comes? Well, it’s because of Peggy, her cat, who always follows her around. God only knows why though! But, I love it when Peggy with her baby-blue Persian eyes comes rubbing herself against me with that furry white tail of hers waving high like a flag. My heart just melts when she snuggles up to me and begs to be nuzzled. She’s so sweet. I love her. And, she smells nice!
I can’t leave her, can I? I can’t leave Kolkata? This is home with the mouth-watering smells of those stalls, right outside the building, selling fried fish and whatnot. This is our life, no?
Eew! Don’t call me that! Mummy … pulheese! It’s embarrassing that you named me after some ancient, totally forgettable actor. But, Meethu? NO! I am not Sinha uncle’s tota.
‘Oh ho, bhāla ṭhika āchē … don’t look so affronted! It’s just a pet-name. Come, give Mummy a kissie.’
Eeewww, Mummy … NEVER! You’ve got that cow-dungy thing on your head. That smell! Oof … it’s disgusting! I’ll throw up my breakfast! Don’t come near me! NO! Don’t pick me up! No, no … don’t kiss me, don’t kiss me! Eewwwww, Mummy … PUT-ME-DOWN! Gasp… I think I’m going to barf. Mummy, LET-ME-GO! I need air … air.
‘Oh ho, stop squirming. Okay, fine! Go! So much you protest. You turn up your nose at everything. It’s so disrespectful.’
‘Ṭhika āchē, ēṭā hatē dina. Did you hear what Daddy said? Daddy has to work on an international project to make houses for poor people. So we are shifting – to foreign!’
Yes, yes … I hea … wait – what? What did you say – foreign? You mean we are leaving Kolkata? Oh, no!
‘Imagine that! Isn’t it exciting? Oooooh, I am so happy.’
Even a blind bat can see that! Huh, no need to rub it in my face. Now who is being disrespectful?
‘Oh ho, you and your disapproval … always with that displeased and queasy expression on your face. You could look a little happy, no? None of your friends have even been to foreign. But, we are relocating … to a place called Fish Town.’
Did you say – Fish Town! There is actually a town of fish … like a town full of fried fish and stuff … a whole town? WOW! THAT’S AWESOME! I LOVE FISH!
‘A ha! Now you are interested? Sounds nice, no?’
Oh yes! Fish Town sounds like just the right kind of place for me. I wonder what it is like. Mummy, is it like Kolkata? Oh, I hope it is. Do they have fried fish stalls there, like they do here? I hope they don’t have any of that nasty baked nonsense that Das auntie makes. That smells like poop! Fish is not fish unless it’s fried. Das auntie’s fish is just gooey, inedible slop. Fit only for stinky pigs.
‘Meethu, I am sure Fish Town will be just like Kolkata … maybe even better. You’ll get plenty of fried fish there.’
Liberia – A few months later
What a horrid, horrid flight! Eew, Mummy …did you have to put me next to that kid on the flight? Uff … he stank like a goat! And, he cried non-stop the entire journey and he threw up – thrice! So gross! His stench made me throw up too. I feel so icky now! Eewww….
‘Meethun, what’s this yellow thing on your coat?
Yellow thing? Where? Yeccccch, is this vomit? Eew … eeeew, get it off me … get it off, now! Oh, I’m going to be sick … I am going to throw up … again!
‘Meethun, be still … BE STILL! Don’t look so repulsed! There … see, Mummy’s cleaned it. Happy, now?’
Yeesh, what a filthy place this is! The people look so scary … and, BLACK! Have they painted their skin? Eew … who does that? That’s gross! Skin should be white, no Mummy … like yours and mine is? I’m not going anywhere near these painted people. Nuh huh! What if the paint rubs off on me? Eeewwww … No! That would be yucky! Then you’ll make me take…
‘Stop grumbling Meethu!’
But, I never said…
‘You may not say anything but I know that appalled expression. You’ll get to like this place. We are going to stay here only now. Come now, let’s go. The company sent a car. It’s a long journey from Monrovia to Fish Town.’
‘Oh Meethuuuuuu … look! We are here!’
Huh – here? Where?
NOT THERE! OH NO, NO … NO!
‘That’s our new bungalow. It’s three times of our house in Kolkata. So much room …’
Oh God, Mummyyyyyyyyy … NO! Eeww … that looks like the bosti Savitri mashi lives in next to the cow shed! That’s small and dark and stinks! I have to live there? Why? Are we poor? Is that why we came here? – So Daddy could make a house for us.
Wait … that yellow thing on the roof … is that straw? Mummyyyyyyyy that’s what you feed to cows near the temple in Kolkata! Our new house is a cow shed? Yech, I have to live with cows? Oh god, NO! Eewww …I will never! Cows smell vile … like rotten eggs and manure. Huh, what sort of hideously backward place did you bring me to? Huh, that’s why that poor kid on the flight was throwing up. He knew!
‘Meethun, isn’t this nice.’
Nice? Have you gone blind? Daddy, nothing about this is nice! It’s awful! It’s so hot here. I am sweating! I’m soaked through my coat and its only March. Since when are evenings in March so muggy? They never were in Kolkata. Chee … now I smell like Das auntie! Eewwww!!
I don’t like it here! I want to go back to Kolkata. Just put me on a flight back to Kolkata … RIGHT NOW! I’ll even go and stay with Das auntie … anything but this!
‘Meethu! Wipe that yucky look off your face. Why are you always so cheesed-off at things, huh? Aren’t you excited at all? If you are feeling icky and sweaty then I’ll give you a bath.’
WHAT? NO! I don’t want a bath! NO BATH!
‘Okay, okay …fine … stop being so difficult. You wrinkle your nose at everything! Come here; take a look at this garden. It’s huge! You can play here with your ball.’
Play with a ball? Huh, I’m not a dog, Mummy! Where’s the balcony? Our Kolkata house had such a big balcony. I could see for miles around. In the evenings I always knew when the vendors came to set up their stalls in the street. I can’t see anything here! And, where are the fish stalls? Where will you buy me fish from? I did not see one single stall anywhere. This place sucks!
‘Oh, settle down.’
Mummy, you said – ‘It will be just like Kolkata … maybe even better. You’ll get plenty of fried fish.’ This place is nothing like Kolkata! NOTHING! YOU LIED TO ME MUMMY! This place doesn’t even smell like Kolkata, of fried fish and things. Ugh, It smells earthy and clammy and … and wet … and gross. Peggy would have thrown up a hairball at such horrid smells.
‘Meethu, stop being so peeved at things. You’ll like this place once you settle in. See, I packed you some fried fish. Come, eat. It’ll wipe that repulsed look off your face. You’ll feel better tomorrow.’
The next day…
‘Meethu … wake up. A friend has come to meet you. Come outside in the garden.’
Is that Peggy? Peggy is here?
‘There you are! Come … meet your new friend.’
New friend? Who?
WHAT IS THAT THING!!!
Eewwwww … is that a cat? No, no … can’t be! Is it?
‘Come nearer … she’s friendly. Come, touch her.’
Touch her? Are you crazy! Eewwww, Mummy … NO! That thing looks diseased. Its fur has fallen off! Yuck … keep it away. She’s ugly… all shrivelled up like the prunes you make me eat when I can’t go potty properly. Eew …I am not touching that!
‘Meethu! You and your offensive attitude! The cat is fine. It’s a Sphinx. They have no fur. See, I am touching it.’
NO! Don’t touch it! Eewwwwww… Mummy!!
No, no … don’t touch me Mummy … don’t touch me!! Cheee…..
‘Oh, you found her! Thank you! I have been looking everywhere for her. Musu … you bad girl! You are not supposed to be out in the heat.’
Who is that, Mummy?
‘Ya Hello –o! I am Teta, your neighbour. You must be Mrs Chak … Chakr …’
It’s Chakroborty, stupid! You have to roll the ‘r’. If it weren’t rude, I’d be rolling my eyes at you now. And, Musu? Seriously? Musu … like in susu? Ewwwww … who names their cat to rhyme with susu? That’s just vulgar.
‘It’s nice to meet you, Teta. I’m Anandi Chakraborty. The name can be a mouthful.’
Really?! Huh, where was this insight when you decided to name me Meethun Chakraborty? It wasn’t a mouthful then? You know what all I have endured just … oh, leave it! What’s the use?
‘Who is this handsome looking boy?’
‘This is Meethu –n. Meethun, say hello to auntie.’
No, thank you very much! She’s so black! Looks scary too! And, I am off aunties … black or white … like forever! In any case, it’s not like I’ll ever want to play with her cat.
‘Umm … sorry about that, Teta. He is usually not like this. But, …’
‘Oh, it is fine, Anun-dee. I want to invite you over for dinner tonight … and Meet-hon too. I’ll make a traditional Liberian welcome meal for you all.’
Huh, the name is Mee … did you say dinner? Will you make fried fish? Hmm … maybe you are not like Das auntie. Huh, she was always stuffing herself at our house. Ugh, so crass!
That evening at dinner…
Eewww! There’s the creepy-looking thing again. Why don’t they put some cloths on her? I’ll throw up even before I eat!
No, no … don’t come near me!
‘Oh, see … Meet-hon likes Musu.’
Huh, what? Eewww No! I don’t like her! Keep her away. Stay away! Shoo … STAY AWAY!
‘Musu, Meet-hon will play with you later. He must be hungry. Come, I have cooked something special for you.’
Is it fried fish?
‘Come, Meet-hon. Let’s eat … dumboy.’
‘Dumb boy!! Well I … that’s so rude! I am NOT a dumb boy! Such disgusting manners! Huh, we never insult guests in Kolkata!! This place…
Chee … what are you doing? What’s this sloppy gunk that you’re serving me?
‘Anun-dee, I cooked dumboy, our national dish. It’s made with cassava dumplings to which we add vegetables and hot pepper soup.’
Eeewww … did you just serve me veggie stew? Yuck! I don’t like veggies! Where’s the fried fish? Did you not make any? Mummyyyyyyy …
‘Meethu, don’t look so repulsed. It’s impolite. We’ll buy fish tomorrow. Now eat this.’
Next day at the market…
Yuck!! These foreign fish smell nasty!
Huh, this market is nothing like the market in Kolkata. That smelled so nice … of fried fish and chicken rolls. This place … eww!! Why does it smell like a compost pit here? Where are the stalls? Mummy, I don’t smell fried fish. I don’t see any stalls. Do you?
Mummy, what are you buying? Ewww … Mummyyyyyyyyyyy, is this dried fish? Ugh, that’s revolting!! Ooof!! That’s what smells so bad here. The reek … I’m going to throw up! I’m…
‘Stop whining, Meethu! Don’t be so uncooperative. Behave!’
Behave? Me? I’m supposed to behave? First you buy vile-smelling dried fish and now you scold me!? What’s my fault? Huh, this place has changed you overnight Mummy. Ugh, fish is not fish unless it’s fried. I hate shukti maach! You know that!
‘Meethu, this is not India. They don’t have Indian spices and stuff here. We have to use what’s available. We have to adjust.’
How do I adjust here? You say we have a big house now. But, the house is not even a proper house! The people are the wrong colour. The cat doesn’t look like a cat. You said it would be just like Kolkata. But, this place … ugh … this place smells all wrong! Things taste all wrong here! And I know, now, you’ll say – ‘Meethu, don’t grumble!’
‘Meethu, this is our life now. Your daddy feels so strongly about this project.’
Daddy feels strongly? Huh, what about me, Mummy? What about my feelings … huh? Am I not allowed any? It’s because I am adopted, isn’t it? You don’t care about me. You don’t care what I feel or want? Why should you? It’s not like my happiness matters or anything. You only care about Daddy! Huh!
‘Oh Meethu, cheer up! I’m sure that this is going to be the experience of a lifetime for us.’
Mummy! That’s an awful thought!
Did you forget … you have one lifetime to experience things in, but, I … I have nine lives!!
I’ll never survive one; leave alone nine such experiences and that too in this disgusting place!! Eeewwwwwwwwww…. NO!
Huh, I am doomed, aren’t I?
Kalkattawala – resident of Kolkata
Tota – parrot
bhāla ṭhika āchē – loosly translated to ‘It’s okay’
Ṭhika āchē, ēṭā hatē dina – okay, let it be
bosti – Bengali for hut
mashi- term of endearment for maidservant
sussu – Hindi for urine
shukti maach – dried fish
Image courtesy – Manjunath H P on unsplash.com