New Beginnings is a new piece of writing by Abir Mukherjee, commissioned by the Book Festival as part of New Passages, an international author residency conducted in partnership with An Lanntair and Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival. Read more about the project here.
The following piece is the second response from Abir Mukherjee. The son of Bengali parents, Abir grew up in the West of Scotland and now lives in London. He is the bestselling author of the Sam Wyndham series of novels, including his award-winning Kolkata-based debut, A Rising Man. His latest novel, Smoke and Ashes, was published in June. Read his initial reflections on the project: Part 1 | Part 2
It had started unremarkably enough, one of a billion chance encounters between two travellers marooned at a fog bound airport terminal. She’d been sitting on the last of a row of plastic chairs, bolted to the floor and moulded in a fashion that made it practically impossible to get comfortable, book in hand, feet up on her trolley case and her backpack in the seat next to her.
‘Would you mind if I sat there?’ he’d asked, almost embarrassed at his own impertinence. ‘Only there are no other-,’
She’d cut him off with an apology of her own, quickly rising to move the bag, and in her haste knocking the trolley case to the floor.
‘I’m sorry to give you such trouble,’ he’d said, kneeling down and righting the case before she had a chance to.
She’d scanned the vicinity. Sure enough, every available seat seemed occupied. A lot of the surrounding floorspace too. She felt the colour rise in her cheeks and shook her head in protest.
‘There’s really no need. It’s my fault.’
He’d smiled, a lopsided grin followed by that curious shake of the head that she would soon learn was peculiar to Indians.
‘You have been waiting long?’ he’d asked.
‘Five hours.’ She’d looked up at the sea of red on the departure screen. ‘And no word yet on how much longer.’
He’d sat down beside her, then promptly stood up once more and removed his waterproof anorak to reveal a thick, patterned sweater beneath – the uniform of the Indian first-time traveller to colder climes. She’d noticed the sheen of sweat on his brow, and felt a need to continue the conversation, mainly to assuage the guilt she felt for hogging the last free seat.
‘Are you off somewhere nice?’
And that was it.
Not long after they’d adjourned to a coffee shop, or rather the sort of nondescript, franchised beverage dispensary that passes for one in an airport. She, an island girl from the edge of the world, ordered black coffee, strong and bitter. He, possessing the sweet tooth of the Bengali, had gone for hot chocolate. They sat, side by side, perched close together on two high stools, their drinks resting on a thin ledge that constituted the bar.
‘What are the odds?’ she’d marvelled.
He’d nodded in hasty agreement, though deep down he didn’t believe it, not in chance at any rate. He’d spoken to no more than a handful of foreigners in his whole life, and he was somewhat in awe of this girl with the pale skin. If he hadn’t been, he might have told her that nothing happened by chance. Everything happened for a reason. She might call it fate – that most dour and impersonal of English words – but he preferred the Indian term, replete with infinite possibility, kismet.
That their paths should cross like this - what else but kismet could it be?
‘What’s your name?’ she’d asked, removing a stray strand of blond hair from her face.
‘Sonjoy,’ he’d told her, ‘Sonjoy Das. And yours?’
Her name was Claire, Claire MacKenzie, from the Isle of Lewis. Her destination – two years in his home town, Calcutta – Kolkata she’d called it, in deference to perceived local sentiments, but from her mouth the name sounded strange. Indeed when he spoke English he still called it Calcutta, as did many people in the city. Calcutta in English, Kolkata in Bengali – that’s the way it had always been and only the politicians could tell you why they felt the need to change it.
His journey was hers in mirror image. A degree, a work permit and a new apprenticeship to be commenced on that island she called home, which seemed to cling to the very edge of the map.
‘And yet,’ he thought, ‘was it really so odd?’
People like him and her left. It’s what they did. The need, not the urge, to leave, to start anew in an alien place, in somebody else’s land – it was in their blood, hard-wired into their DNA over generations. The price of being born with too much brains or gumption in a place that was too small or too poor. It was their fate, their kismet.
The TV screen, high up in the corner was tuned to the twenty four hour news. The headlines scrolled along the banner bottom, white letters on a band of red.
“US President decries immigration from ‘shithole countries’…”
Claire had shaken her head. Pointed out the irony of his own mother’s emigration had presumably escaped him. Sonjoy had nodded, but he understood the man’s sentiment. That was his birth-right, he’d thought, the rich man unable to walk a mile in the shoes of the poor – of those born on the fringes, where life, whether it be by drought, famine, flood or highland clearance, is perilous. The truth was, there were no shithole countries, just shitty circumstances.
‘Is this your first time in the UK?’ she’d asked.
‘First time anywhere out of India,’ he’d replied. ‘And first time away from my family,’ he’d added, a hint of a more sombre note in his voice. ‘You?’
She’d smiled. ‘I’ve been a nomad for years.’
She’d left home at seventeen, university on the mainland, bills paid for by jobs in call centres – a temporary arrangement that had insidiously become a permanent career: call handler, to team leader to management trainee. The owners had sold out a year ago to an Indian company, and now she is off for a two year spell at head office. She knows of no one else who has made the journey from Stornoway to Kolkata. In her mind, she wonders if she will be the first. If she’d asked him though, Sonjoy might have told her otherwise: that commerce between Kolkata and Scotland was hardly new. Or he might have grinned and agreed with her once more.
He’s talking fast now, filling the silence with a hundred words a minute, telling her of his city, painting it in as favourable a light as he can: the places she must visit - the Victoria Memorial, the Park Street cemetery, a shopping mall here, an art gallery there; all the tired tourist attractions he expects a westerner will want to see. She nods, as though making mental notes, but the truth is he underestimates her. She’s interested in more than malls and memorials.
In turn, she tells him of her island: the stones at Callanish, the powder white beaches and turquoise sea of Harris – the bittersweet reminiscences of the emigrant, unsure when she herself will see them again. He suggests a toast.
‘To new beginnings.’ And they seal it with a ceramic clink.
Her flight is called first. A rush of relief mingled with something more melancholy. Electronic addresses exchanged, Gmail and Yahoo, and telephone numbers, not their own, for they will both soon have new ones, but of relatives – a mother, a sister, ‘to show you round’.
‘We must meet again,’ he says, and she agrees. Politeness dictates both the request and the response, and neither seriously expects it to happen. And yet maybe it will, because for those like Sonjoy and Claire, the world is not so large a place.
They touch down within hours of each other, both exiting airport terminals into torrential downpours five thousand miles apart. Only the temperature and the direction of precipitation are different: the humid, tropical torrent of a Bengal monsoon and cold, horizontal rain of a Stornoway summer. Neither is phased by it. For Claire, the fact that rain can be warm comes as a peculiar and pleasant surprise. For Sonjoy too, the portents are propitious. Rain is the bringer of life to his native land, and family superstition decrees that any endeavour commenced under storm clouds is naturally auspicious.
Both hail taxis: she to a hotel in upmarket Park Street; he to a guest house on the edge of town, half-way up a hill, his neighbours a field of sheep. Despite herself, she recoils at the sight of the crowds, while he is unnerved by the silence. That first night is difficult for both of them, alone, awake, staring at light bulb and ceiling fan. Anticipation tinged with grey doubt and homesickness.
In time, Sonjoy will fall in love with the island, with its solitude and its rugged, weather-beaten beauty. The people too, he will learn, are little different to his own, welcoming him, a stranger with an open, even-handedness he scarcely anticipates. Claire too, will grow to, if not quite love, then at least develop an appreciation for her new city, and for the small, dark skinned people who call it home. She will be fascinated by the simple things: the sight of an old man rubbing mustard oil into his skin on a winter’s morning; or a young woman in a coarse, ochre coloured sari, sitting cross-legged on the floor, daintily sifting through the innumerable bones of a hilsa fish with her fingers before taking its flesh with a little rice and gracefully lifting it to her mouth.
She will begin to learn the language, halting and hesitant at first, but enough to get by at the market, and much better than Sonjoy’s attempts at Gaelic. More than once, her heart skips a beat as she suddenly hears the strains of what sound like Auld Lang Syne or Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon floating out from hidden rooms as she walks suburban streets. Familiar melodies played on foreign instruments. And one day, she will find herself walking down Park Street and remember his words about visiting the cemetery. On a whim she will pay the entrance fee and, in the mellow light of late afternoon, spend an hour lost to the world among the stone monuments to the British who came here in earlier centuries. She will walk past the grave of another MacKenzie from the Isle of Lewis but she will not notice it.
Electronic missives pass between them, at first a courtesy but then, to their mutual surprise, more frequent communication, Christmas cards and Durga Puja greetings. They keep in touch, each sensing in the other an honest broker, thousands of miles distant yet with intimate knowledge of their own circumstance. Shared jokes at the bewilderment and wonderment of their new surroundings and a comforting voice to combat the isolation of the outsider.
They do meet again, not in an airport lounge but in a small café in Stornoway. The rain is coming down outside, but neither notice it. Her skin has taken on, if not quite a tan, then at least the sheen of time spent in warmer climes. His clothes and hair are more contemporary. Less Indian. She takes her coffee with milk, and he drinks tea, no sugar.
Her two years are up and his apprenticeship is over, but she won’t be returning to Lewis, nor he to his Calcutta, not yet at any rate. For both, the call of home is still drowned out by the call of the world and the need to experience life and seek out opportunity.
They have changed since they last met, but they are closer. They inhabit a common ground: that rare, shared space between cultures, an understanding of the Scot and the Bengali and an appreciation of the vistas on both sides.
She suggests a drive out to Callanish and he agrees. They stand and watch as the red sun dips out from under the clouds and the stones cast their long shadows. She pulls a hip-flask from somewhere and he stares, wide-eyed as she takes a slug and passes it to him.
‘A toast,’ she says. ‘To new beginnings.’
Copyright © 2018, Abir Mukherjee. All rights reserved.
Commissioned by the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
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