Putul slid the CD of Gregorian chants into the player and came out through the French doors to the back terrace of her house. Almost, but not yet three o’clock: a suspended, nameless hour of the day. It was a time when she too felt nameless and unbounded.
The broccoli-shaped Roman pines surrounding her house with the burnt-sienna walls and the bougainvilleas swarming over them like mauve butterflies was picture-book Italy. But at this hour, with the October sunlight slanting on it all and the other-worldly music of Miserere Mei Deus seeping out like scented smoke, her house and its back garden seemed to expand and float into anonymity. Remove the pines and replace them with banana and papaya trees and it could be her childhood home in Bangladesh. At the moment, it was a detached, unframed and unnamed landscape: a painted, dreaming world. She felt part of it, as if she herself had ceased to be: no longer wife, mother of twin girls, a dabbler in painting, an erstwhile professional singer of Tagore songs, and a recent enthusiast of Gregorian chants.
Alessandra had introduced her to plainsong after the Christmas party at Mike and Alessandra’s house last year. Mike, an American was Omar’s colleague at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. The party was a mixed bag of nationalities, and everybody had been singing something Christmasy in their own languages. Conchita and Riccardo had sung ‘Noche de Paz’, which everyone immediately recognised as the Spanish version of ‘Silent Night’. Then the new Peruvian couple had sung a lively song about a donkey called ‘El Burrito Sabanero’. There were Greek and Ukrainian carols sung to guitars as well as the piano at which Alessandra sat accompanying the singers. Alessandra herself had sung with her sister ‘Tu Scendi dalle Stelle’. Before singing she had looked over her shoulder at Putul as if continuing their earlier conversation about music and memory: “This song takes me back to when we were schoolchildren, and at Christmas time we would go to the Villa Scalabrini, an Italian nursing home and sing to the residents.” Putul knew the song. Shona and Sheba sang it with their class at the school Christmas concert. The lines ‘Ah, quanto ti costò/ L’avermi amato’ always brought tears to her eyes. “What a price you paid to have loved me.” Yes, sometimes the cost of loving was as inflationary as the cost of living.
Then, without warning they had all turned to her and Omar. Mike said, “Of course, we know Christmas is not part of your culture, but sing something, anything.” Alessandra joined in saying. “And by the way, Putul is actually a professional singer.” Putul groaned, “I used to sing, not anymore. Oh! This is so embarrassing.” She looked helplessly at Omar, who from behind his glass of Grappa whispered to her in Bangla with a teasing smile, “Well, you always say Tagore has a song for every occasion. What, nothing for Christmas?”
Putul knew how little Omar cared for her specialization in what he called ‘funereal Rabindra-sangeet’ but she also knew he enjoyed the reflected praise whenever she sang. Now, she was grateful to him for inadvertently spurring her in the right direction. From some crevice in her memory she dislodged a Tagore song she had heard sung by the Bengali Christian community at Christmas or “Boro-din” as they called it. Had she first heard the song as a little girl in Comilla or was it later in Dhaka?
Aaji shubho diney, Pitar-o bhoboney, Amrito shodoney cholo jaai. “On this blessed day, to our Father’s abode, his ambrosial mansion, let us go forth,” She had roughly translated the words. As Putul sang the refrain, Cholo-cholo-cholo jaai a second time, Alessandra grasped the sound of the words and joined her coloratura voice to Putul’s deeper timbre to produce a harmonising effect.
Putul had shut her eyes briefly: they were walking together over trampled grass past a ruined rural church in a landscape where crows on banana trees cawed a ragged chorus on Christmas day. By now Omar, Shaukat, Naureen and Mike were singing the refrain jokingly in English with “O let us, let us, le-e-et us go!” Putul’s heart had filled with joy. And after the song, Alessandra had got up and hugged Putul, remarking on the similarity she had sensed between Tagore’s hymn-like melody and some Gregorian liturgy music.
Now, as she stood on her terrace with the mild sun pooling around her, she hummed something – a scrap of tune without words. The CD had played out and what thrummed through her was neither the chant she had just heard nor one of the songs she was practising recently, but a series of notes, a line of pure melody she was making up. Yes, at this hour, she felt reduced to the essentials. She felt like an inanimate prop in a painting. An Italian still-life, perhaps: Strozzi’s The Cook plucking birds in a kitchen, or Rembrandt’s Little Girl with Two Dead Peacocks. No, not that. The once glorious birds, hanging upside down, lifeless yet surprised, and the little girl gazing at them through wide, expressionless eyes was a disturbing picture. No, Putul would rather be a Caravaggio still-life, like his famous Basket of Fruit. Better, she would inhabit this canvas of the moment as Woman with Laundry Basket. Or, Putul smiled, Laundry Basket with Woman Gazing Enviously at the Wisteria Arching in her Neighbour’s Garden.
Suppressing a yawn she looked at her watch. A quarter to three now. She turned her back to the garden and started to unclip the twins’ skirts and leggings that hung from the drying stand like a row of ten year-old dancers in a coordinated ballet of suspended motion. Next, she helped poor, over-worked Omar’s stiff shirts to collapse in almost visible relief into the lavender-scented laundry. As she put each clothes-pin back in a line of black locusts, she was absently aware of the noisy silence of hidden birds and insects.
She turned to go in and caught her reflection in the glass of the French doors. The forty-plus woman in her everyday jeans, holding a loaded laundry basket against her still slim hips paused, as if waiting for a shy twin to speak up; and then in the reflection she saw a flurry, a bird alighting on a pine branch behind and a sharp call, a pure note, like an echo of her earlier song. She turned around and it passed in a flash into the dome of the Azalea bush; or was it there up in the campanile of the cypress? She could still hear the bird, but its trill was already fading as she walked indoors. Birdsong was best heard as remembered music.
From the laundry room she heard the oven timer go off in the kitchen. She turned off the oven and from the hot aromatic cave extracted the perfectly browned dish of baked cannelloni for the girls’ dinner. The wall clock said five to three. The girl’s school bus came to the piazza at a quarter past. She untied her black apron at the neck, her chin pressed down on the recipe for Risotto ai Funghi Porcini printed on her chest. Dots and dashes of tomato and turmeric stains from curry now punctuated the apron, which Shona and Sheba had bought her on their school trip to Firenze, last May.
Putul bunched it inside a drawer and got ready to leave the house. She let herself out the front door and started off with leisurely steps down to the piazza. She stopped in front of the church. It was a modern structure, its angular roof softened by branches of bottlebrush flowers and the shielding pines. Except for Sunday when the church bells rang out in her corner of Spinacetto, the church was quiet and unobtrusive, and this neighbourhood in the outskirts of Rome was unmarked by any overt religiosity. Even Christmas and Easter were discreet affairs, and her neighbours conducted their daily, weekly, monthly or yearly rituals privately. Sometimes, a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses in suits and ties would show up at her garden gate ringing her bell to sell the latest model of their god and the hereafter. Or a new Bengali immigrant, a young girl who worked at a local pizzeria and was obviously a newly zealous Muslim since she would walk down the road with her Arab inspired head scarf.
Putul herself was Muslim but she could never have embraced any religion in that public way. And yet her day was divided by Muslim prayer times, ingrained through habit. Rituals provided potted soil to her cultural rootlessness, gave shape to her amorphous housewifely existence.
Her mornings began early with the Fajr prayer, followed by a few minutes of yogic meditation which sustained her through the frenetic business of getting the girls ready. Often during the day, after her gym or after the domestic chores had been done, she would take out her trusty old Pakrashi harmonium with its hand bellows and practice an old song or two, or listen to music. Today, Francesco the plumber had come to repair the water heater and lingered so long that Putul had not had any alone time till after lunch, and so, as usual, she had almost missed her midday Zuhr prayers. This was the prayer she enjoyed least, and one which she routinely rushed through, her mind elsewhere.
Her favourite prayer of the day was the late afternoon Asr. It was a fleeting but intimate hour, after her daughters had come home and she felt encircled and full. The prayer time was short, the hour evanescent and could easily slip between the cracks of the day’s routine; yet surprisingly, she never missed this prayer. It was effortless and provided her a spontaneous joy. The rest of the prayers: the Maghrib at sunset (quickly done while Omar waited for her to join him with a cup of tea after he returned from office) and the bedtime Isha, which was a mere ritual to be gone through in her nightdress in the girl’s room after kissing them goodnight.
But four o’clock came like a secret assignation that centred her day. She felt lifted from life, sensed the essential translucence of things. She could explain it no better than she could have why she loved a certain song or painting.
As she picked up a pine cone near the gate of the church, Putul watched an old man shuffling up the gravelled path that led into the church. Would he sit in one of the pews to pray or would he empty his mind and simply surrender to the surrounding peace? She had been inside many of the old churches in Rome as a tourist and loved the richly wrought quietness that hung as gracefully as the painted ceilings, the gilded bird-like angels, or even the paunchy marble cherubs, fluffy as clouds. But she had never had occasion to be inside one of these modern, functional-looking, suburban churches.
Once, with Alessandra, she had been inside a tiny unknown church outside Firenze to listen to Vespers being sung. It had been a sublime experience. It marked the moment when she had been truly drawn to Gregorian chants. Having studied in missionary and convent schools in Bangladesh, she felt something familiar evoked through these sounds that pulled her to some lost world.
As a child, she had learnt the names of the Canonical hours of Christian prayers from her little friend Esther Rosario, the Christian Bengali girl from those faded days of Our Lady of Fatima’s Convent in Comilla, in a long ago country called East Pakistan. Esther had taught her the names: Matins or Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext….then something she could not recall now… then Vespers and Complines. In exchange, little Putul had taught Esther the names and hours of the Muslim prayers.
She had once imitated for Esther the way her visiting paternal grandmother used to pray sitting down, her body swaying back and forth, and her forefinger going up, once, at the end; or how their cook, Shorif Miah used to pray standing on his prayer mat in the servant’s quarter behind the house, folding his hands over his navel and bending forward once with both hands at the knees, then straightening up with a loud pious sigh of Allahu Akbar before groaning to kneel down and touch his forehead to the ground. Putul would stand in front of Esther and look sideways to make sure she was following her. When they got bored of this Esther and she would play at being teachers, either Sister Consuela or Sister Mary Magdalena, mimicking their English accents. Putul adored pretty Sister Consuela and was ecstatic on the days she was chosen to run errands for her or asked to wipe the blackboard.
She had once confessed to Esther on the bus that she might like to be a ‘sister’ when she was older. Esther was horrified: “But you can’t. Don’t you know if you become a nun you have to shave off your hair? My uncle said so. You like your long hair. I love it too.” She had stroked Putul’s braid. “You can’t cut them, ever. Promise? Remember when Jhorna had chicken pox and came to school with a scarf hiding her shaved head. Eeesh! Would you like that?” After that they had spent long hours trying to imagine all the sisters with shaved heads or wondering what colour their hair might have been.
At home, Putul’s lack of Islamic education had created a furor with her visiting paternal grandmother. Daadi was scandalised that her granddaughter had still not been taught to read the Holy Quran in Arabic or memorise enough verses from it for her to learn to pray, and yet she could babble “Our Father Who Art in Heaven.” A teacher was found for little Putul. Thrice a week, after school she had to put on long pajamas under her skirt and a scarf on her head and sit at the dining table squirming with irritation and boredom. She memorized the four ‘Quls’ and a few other verses as quickly as she could so her family could get rid of the unsmiling sweaty man with his neck scarf in checkered cloth and skull cap.
Esther had once come home with her from school. During the lesson she came in, still in her school skirt, and sat down next to Putul, her eyes lowered. The teacher had stroked his beard and asked her softly but sternly if she could wait outside. That was the day Putul had told her mother that she did not want any more lessons.
“But why, darling? Did he say or do something?” Her mother had probed, her voice rising in anxiety. Putul had remained stubbornly unresponsive. She never knew what her mother had concluded but the lessons had stopped immediately. Her cuddly, clove chewing maternal grandmother arrived soon after and Putul had learnt her prayers from her within a week.
Last year, during Ramadan, when Shona and Sheba had wanted to fast and feel all grown up, Putul had used this chance to negotiate with them. If they learnt to say their namaz they could fast on weekends. The glamour of going without food wore off quickly but Shona and Sheba learnt to pray and would often reel off the names Fajr-Zuhr-Asr-Maghrib-Isha while skipping rope.
The twins had once asked if their friends Cristina and Rosalba could join in the Eid prayer at the newly built Rome Mosque on the Via della Moschea on the other side of town. It was one of those years, when the festival had thankfully fallen on a weekend, so the girls didn’t need to miss school. She had said yes immediately, and made silver-edged veils in different colours for all the girls to wear, and even found some matching glass bangles in her old box. The girls had been thrilled, just as in Putul’s childhood Esther and some of their Hindu class friends had enjoyed themselves attending with Putul the more elaborate Eid celebrations back in another country and in another, more innocent time.
Where was Esther now? After their tenth birthday, a month apart, in 1964, Putul’s father had been transferred to Dhaka and they had lost touch. Putul always remembered her during Christmas, but now more so with the girls turning the same age as when she and Esther had known each other. Something clawed in her. She felt as if Esther had never left her, it was she who had abandoned her; once, in their childhood, waving her goodbye in Comilla; and perhaps again, more recently. It gnawed at her, this recent memory of that strange moment last year, when she had suddenly seen Esther, here in Rome.
She was convinced it was her. Esther’s face was unmistakable; she would recognise it anywhere. That delicate face, which even as a young girl had promised flawless beauty, except for one defect. Esther’s lovely leaf-shaped eyes, heavy-lidded with short dense lashes should have been the focal point of her face, but while the right eye was liquid dark and lively as a fish, her left eye was milky and still. Whether it was from birth, or the result of an accident, Putul no longer remembered. But there she was in front of her, here in Rome, after all those years. And yet she had been frozen as in a nightmare, unable to call or reach out and embrace her.
It was last year in September. Putul had driven some house guests to the Vatican in Omar’s car with its convenient corpo diplomatico number plate, and while waiting for them to finish their tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, she was sitting at a sidewalk café close to her parked car, sipping a fresh-squeezed Frulatti di Frutta. The sunlight lay on the oily grey cobblestones, and some pigeons gurgled under the striped green and white sunshade. At this late morning hour, the only clients at the other tables were two Italian matrons, an elderly gentleman reading the Messagero and at the far end, three nuns, all of them with the olive skin that Alessandra would have considered sexy. One was in a long skirt while the other two wore the white and blue bordered saris of Mother Teresa’s order.
When the waiter came to the nuns’ table with the bill, the skirt-clad Sister turned to get her bag hanging from the chair. She saw Esther’s face. It had fulfilled its promise of beauty but was gaunt for her age. The right eye swept casually in her direction, not recognising her. The left eye was stony as always.
Putul knew she herself had changed since she was a kid: a plain girl blossoming late, her long dark hair now short and stylishly streaked. But she felt a stab, as if both Esther’s eyes had grown milky. A stranger’s eyes.
The waiter was still at the table, talking to the other nuns, explaining something on a map spread on the table. Putul waited for him to leave, her feet tapping, her heart unquiet. Esther’s hooded face was turned away now, her habit glowing in the sun, blinding Putul. Who was this new Esther?
Since Comilla in that long ago East Pakistan of the 60’s, Esther had vanished from Putul’s life as if she never existed. But a few years ago, on a trip to Dhaka in the new old country, Bangladesh, Putul had heard from some round-about source the tragedy that had happened to Esther’s family in 1971. Putul had tried to piece it together. Some years after Putul’s family had left Comilla, Esther, her sisters and their widowed mother had also moved away to live with Esther’s maternal uncle, who was the parish priest of a Catholic Mission somewhere in Dinajpur. In that war-torn year, during the turmoil of East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh, the uncle had been brutally murdered by the Pakistani army. With him were butchered the villagers he had sheltered in his church.
What happened to Esther and her family, whether they had managed to escape in time across the border to India, no one could say. Hadn’t there also been other rumours, dreadful visions of a young girl, her helpless eye expressionless under physical assault? By soldiers alone or also by Bengali speaking Muslim collaborators of their military masters—men in skull caps and checkered neck cloth with eyes rimmed in antimony stroking their beards?
Putul had never wept for Esther. In her mind she had willed her away across the border, running with her past a blazing white-washed church safely into another land. All these years she had imagined her friend as a wife and mother like her. The past was buried; it had no business to be sitting before her shrouded in unspeakable secrets.
A message flashed on Putul’s cell phone. It was from her house guests at the Vatican. “Tour over. Will wait where you dropped us.” She replied “Ok, on my way,” put away the phone and glanced again at the nun’s table. The waiter was clearing away the coffee cups, and the nuns were crossing the street. Putul surged up, her half-sipped glass of juice wobbling on the plastic table. Then she ebbed into her chair. Could she just run up and embrace the nun. What would she say to her? Offer apologies for whatever her co-religionists had done to her little friend; say sorry for all that the teenaged Esther had witnessed, undergone, internalised?
Dignified and serene looking Sister Esther was pointing to some buildings, and the three hooded figures were moving further and further away, like penguins, then pigeons, then just jaunty little birds in the horizon. And little Esther was gone, a flash in the corner.
A breeze sifted like a sigh through the branches of the red bottlebrush flowers. Putul moved past the church and glanced at her watch. It was now five past three: the girls would be here soon, the school bus releasing pent up life into the quiet piazza as bedraggled bodies jumped off, yelling ciao while hitching up slumped school bags and backpacks over shoulders like slum children carrying siblings in a faraway land.
But the stillness stretched like a yawn over Piazza delle Eroi, swallowing the trees, the vegetable stall, the newspaper kiosk, the mongrel dozing in the shade of the Chiuso sign of the shuttered AGIP petrol pump. The empty streets trickled noiselessly into the stagnant square, when like a small explosion the school bus burst into the piazza.
Birds roused and rose above the treetops like the shouts of children. Down the cobbled stone streets, two old women emerged. A shutter went up in one of the apartment terraces. A dog barked. The air quickened and changed, as if the whole piazza had opened its glassy eyes and come back to itself.
The girls hopped down from the bus, their ponytails swinging like tassels, and ran towards their mother. Putul recalled how she and Esther, their hair in braids tied at the end with red ribbons used to take the same school bus home. Esther would get off first, near a crowded bazaar lane. No one ever waited for her. Putul had always envied that, because in Putul’s case, Mollick Bhai the old family retainer would always stand at the bus stop, embarrassingly with an umbrella rain or shine, and come right inside the bus to fetch her.
Had Putul ever been to Esther’s home? She tried to recall but could only think of one blurry occasion, a crowd of school girls inside a tiny but neat living room with Esther’s mother a thin lady in a sari worn pinned at the shoulder, like a nurse – Putul had thought then, handing out a plate of pastries and glasses of coke. It was probably on Christmas, the year when Esther and her family had not gone away as usual to Dinajpur to spend the holidays there with her uncle.
But Esther had come a few times to Putul’s home, and not just on Eid. Still, it was one of those friendships that had flowered more within the school walls. Shona and Sheba had friends like that, too. Girls who would become mere names to recall later; girls with mysterious homes and mystifying futures and destinies, with whom they would laugh and play and pledge eternal love and friendship at school but whom they would be unable to protect or comfort from the terrifying darkness of the future.
The girls were upon her. Putul tried to hug them but they were already distracted, and slipped out from her desperate embrace.
“Mama, can we go to the bar and get a Calippo-fizz? It’s so hot!”
“I want the coke flavour.”
“Not now, baby. First we go home, wash and change, then we’ll see.”
They relented easily and were off at a run towards home. Putul chased them up the steep street, carrying both their school bags. “Did you get your history test back, Sheba? And Shona, the note for Miss Hanson? Hey, wait….” Laughter carried them homeward.
Putul unlocked the front door and at once the silent house was occupied – stairs thudded, drawers banged, fridge doors opened and sucked shut, cartoon voices sniggered and howled. It was a different house from the one she had inhabited during the quiet morning hours, the one she had left to walk down to the bus stop at three. Now, at half past the hour, she felt that she too were returning from being away someplace else all day.
She took the school bags up to the girl’s room and emptied their gym bags. In the one marked ‘Shona’ the gym shorts were crumpled up. She straightened it out and immediately saw that first telltale rusty brown streak near the crotch. She felt a pain in her heart, and a whimper rose to her lips as she tore open also Sheba’s gym bag. And there it was: the malicious stigmata of womanhood. But so soon? It had arrived then, like soldiers at a church door – the end of childhood hauling away her little girls. She sprayed Vanish on the stains and spots of both the shorts and threw them into the laundry hamper.
She would have to sit with them again, give that talk, this time making it all seem special and feminine. Drying her eyes and composing a false smile, she came down with the dusty gym shoes and took them out to the terrace. She clapped the shoes together and a rustling blur of wings scattered into the sky from the terrace railing. She could hear the bird’s high voice, like a keening. As she turned to go in she saw a flash in the glass door. On a high branch of a pine sat a little bird. From the height and distance it was no larger than a locust. It was tiny as a clothes pin holding itself to the branch while from its minuscule throat emanated the resounding lament of an entire choir singing the passing of a minor hour.
With a small burst of fanning wings, the bird disappeared. The air remained disturbed yet calmed by its calling. As she went in to say her Asr prayer she recalled clearly the name of her favourite Canonical hour.
It came before Vespers. Sung about four o’clock in the afternoon, it was the ninth and last of the minor hours before Eve and the dark. It was called the None, as an untouched little girl had once told her.
Putul slid the CD of Gregorian chants into the player and came out through the French doors to the back terrace of her house. Almost, but not yet three o’clock: a suspended, nameless hour of the day. It was a time when she too felt nameless and unbounded.