Lost Things

Jai Chakrabarti


One afternoon when the boys were crossing from the football field to the cricket green, Mrs. Gupta emerged onto her balcony to scream. I am certain that this was the first time I had heard a grown person scream, at least in the way of impolite grief, in that prehensile way I mean, though we had known her earlier, a perfectly respectable woman, but during that year (how long did it last?—a monsoon, or into winter, when we would have played in collared sweaters) we understood, or rather I understood, that I did not know her at all.

First, I would hear the sound of her third story door being flung open, as if hurried by a fierce wind, then she would appear in her widow's white sari (though she was not a widow) and she would run from the lip of the balcony to the railing that overlooked the aging mango tree, return inside, then sprint back again, for perhaps six or seven times, it seems now, that that was the right number.

I cannot tell you why I remembered Mrs. Gupta's ritual while comforting my wife in a clinic that promised wanting couples a child, except that we had just lost, yet again, the possibility of a child (an amorphous shape when it stopped being of this world) while Mrs. Gupta had lost more—her three year old son, to be precise—but grief, it seems to me, brings with it imprecise analogies.

I won't (or rather I can't) tell you why the past rose up in me like the debris of a long-forgotten war, except that this is the way in which we become more circular to ourselves, in which we diminish our perceptions as narrow, purposeful things, composed of destinies, and return to the simple, outmoded ways of remembering.

For the sake of this child, my father walked ten miles up a mountain so close to the Himalayas that when he recounted this story to strangers, he said he climbed the Himalayas proper, but no matter, he is nearly seventy, and ten miles for a seventy year old man is no small distance, certainly not for a man who has hardly performed ritual in his life, who has made a living of classical and non-classical logic, studying and teaching around the globe, for such a man to climb a mountain and to leave an offering for a goddess (or rather an amorphous rock near the mouth of a cave) was a divine stroke, or so I thought.

I believe that Mrs. Gupta searched for her son with every facility available. We know that he was lost in the circus. We know the circus came to town once every year, for two weeks, and that the final day brought the most people, perhaps a quarter of the southern city—I had been there myself, I had seen, at the least, the garish elephants and the wearied lion tamers—all amuck in the noise and flight of the obscene grandeur of the living world, the two-headed boy, the girl with a tongue so long she could curl it around a glass of beet juice.

I don't know exactly where Mrs. Gupta's son disappeared, though I believe it must have been in the great tent, where on the final day, the quarter of the southern city adjourned, and there I believe he fell away, or perhaps he was coerced by someone, or something, and followed that inclination towards its own story.

During the nine weeks our to-be child was known as an embryo, we referred to it (here, finding a pronoun is challenging) as "the bright spot."

Those afternoons when Mrs. Gupta emerged onto her balcony, we viewed her ritual in part with the same fascination we viewed the girl with the enormous tongue, though there was something else, which, even then, with the supposed simplicity of childhood, I understood in my belly, a kind of churning up, a warning sent by my own future, a sign I would not heed.

In our house, plants have hardly fared well. Even the desert plant that requires nothing more than mist was doomed. One day, it was knocked over and crushed by a neighbor's dog, who came alongside the neighbor, when we held a party for our birthdays, which are, as it turns out, only two days apart. It seemed fitting to bury the bright spot in one of these plants that did not fare well, whose survival was like the arc of life itself, at first full of eagerness and bloom, then a slow, leveling off, from which you cannot be sure whether it will live or die, a kind of browning at the edges, from which we might still recover.

My father, the Hindu, who climbed that mountain, would tell you that we may be reborn as plants, as elephants, anything composed of soul. We buried our bright spot in the garden by our house. It was fall. I remember the sun was not unkind, showering us with its warmth. My wife dug the dirt out with her hands and put the bright spot in. I kept my eyes shut. I remembered Mrs. Gupta's voice, the way it would echo from building to building, those days we lived so close together like ants. I remembered the terrible pitch and thunder of the aging mango tree, as it leaned in the monsoon. I lay my hand on hers on that tissue of unborn thing, unprepared for prayer.