Fiction: Shadows

Adhiraj Kashyap

Adhiraj Kashyap

          Tonmoy was trying to bicker with his mother over how his father was wrong. He seemed utterly furious and was in no mood to listen. “Maa, you can’t support him on this. You can’t be serious…”, his anger slowly found its way to his eyes. He took a brief pause in order to give his mother a window to speak; but she was sitting on the sofa calmly, with a magazine put gently on her lap, while holding a cup of tea in her right hand. She was leafing through the sports magazine and even Tonmoy’s vehement arguments couldn’t deter her concentration. It wasn’t as if she was not listening; but she preferred not to speak as she was quite used to such tirades coming from Tonmoy against his father. His mother’s silence fueled his anger even further. He continued, with a louder and angrier voice, “Don’t you have anything to say? Are you going to support him on this too?” The remarks finally impelled Geeta to put forth her stance. She raised her head, removed her glasses and kept glaring at Tonmoy for a few seconds. Her gaze acknowledged Tonmoy’s foolishness, but didn’t look down upon it. She replied, rather patiently, “Did I ever tell you that I agree with your father? Did I ever say that I support him? Why are you dragging me into this then! It’s his business… It’s his job… Entirely his own… He deals with it in his own way… I have nothing…” As soon as her speech started catching on speed and vigor, Tonmoy interrupted his mother- “But you never disagreed with him either. Just because you don’t support him, doesn’t mean that you can absolve yourself of the guilt… You can’t be neutral on everything…” Just when Geeta sensed that her son’s allegations were getting graver, her response also started turning mildly angrier. “If you are so bothered about something, why don’t you talk to your father? Why don’t you confront him directly? Why does it always need to go through me?”
          Geeta, Tonmoy’s mother, was used to playing the mediator between her husband and her son, an art she had to master over the years. It wasn’t as if Tonmoy and his father couldn’t see eye to eye. But as he grew older, they kept drifting apart with time. They often had to struggle to come up with things to talk about. There was an inherent communication gap, which kept widening inch by inch. Tonmoy never blamed his father; neither did his father held him liable for it. Tonmoy knew that it was his innate shy nature and his inability of expressing his emotions freely was perhaps the sole reason for the distance. His father was aware of that too. He was rather respectful of his son’s private space and was always very cautious not to be intrusive. Ever since Tonmoy was a child, he had always seen his father excelling at every facet of fatherhood. He was blessed enough to have a parent who didn’t just obsess over what mark he got in Math. When he wished to take professional coaching in cricket, his father didn’t take even a second to agree. The very next day, he was at the ground, training with other kids. After a few months, his inclination shifted to football instead, after he was dropped from the cricket squad of his school. He told his father that he would prefer switching to football, and his father readily obliged. A month later, even that craze fizzled out after the world cup got over. Tonmoy didn’t want to join coaching centers for tuition. So his father arranged for home tutors to make sure that his son wasn’t deprived of proper mentoring. Tonmoy even used to have his violin classes at home. The only time his father objected, that to feebly, to anything was when Tonmoy didn’t want to pot for the science stream in his eleventh. But when he gauged that Tonmoy was not up for it at all, then he didn’t push it any further. Geeta, on the other hand, used to be extremely irked at times with her husband’s leniency towards their son. She knew quite well that her husband could seldom say no to anything Tonmoy ever asked for. It peeved her that her husband was so over-protective that she often had to balance it out in other ways.
          In his graduation days, Tonmoy grew more aloof from his father. Mr. Rajib Kalita, Tonmoy’s father, was expanding his business at that time and used to travel outside Guwahati quite a lot. He was setting up another office in Jorhat. He anyway had always been awfully caught up with work; but during that phase, his schedule got even tighter and hardly spent any time at home. On the other hand, Tonmoy was immersed in his new graduation life. He was getting attuned to the fresh milieu in Cotton College, befriending new people and was exposed to a diverse set of individuals hailing from different parts of the state. He met people who didn’t necessarily belong to the same socio-economic strata as he did. New sets of ideals and newer ways of being were brought to his notice, which broadened his horizon of looking at life in general. He joined the theatre group in his college. He was also intimately associated with student politics in the course of those three years. Though, he himself never ran for the elections, but he always remained on the fringes of political bustle in the college. He met Radhika there, who was senior to him by two years. They formed an instant bond after Tonmoy joined theater. She was the cultural secretary of the college at that time, and also the spine of the theatre troupe. Not only Radhika, but a bunch of other people he made friends with in that span, kindled him to stir his interest towards things he never explored in life before. He took up reading and delved deep into the realm of literature, starting from a number of Assamese writers to a few wizards of world literature. He pored over some highly acclaimed plays and started looking at theatre and acting through an evolved lens. It was Radhika who got him into reading a few Assamese maestros such as Jyotiprasad Aagarwala and Bhabendra Nath Saikia. In his first year, they were even intending to adapt Karengor Ligiri; but later plumped for Rupalim instead; but eventually, they had to zero in on Ejak Jonakir Jilmil. The first show was a huge success, though Tonmoy was criticized by Radhika for his portrayal. In the party at Radhika’s place following the play, they had a long profound discussion about what Radhika thought went wrong for him. Taking on from the principal theme of the play, they also had a detailed conversation about insurgency. It was fascinating for Tonmoy to get an insight into the first-hand experiences of Radhika and her family during that turbulent period, stories he never thought could actually exist and was used to accepting those as mere myths till then. Tonmoy was listening to Radhika speak for hours how an ardent student would lend his ears to a teacher. Radhika anyway had that sort of an effect on him. Ever since he had known her, he had harbored an immense amount of respect for her in his heart. Though Radhika treated him as a dear friend, he could never vault over that barrier of a senior-junior dynamics. Their friendship bloomed with time into an exceptionally intimate bond; but still, Tonmoy always looked at her in awe.
          That particular instance induced a blazing desire in Tonmoy to take up writing. He gave a shot at writing a play himself this time. His foremost motive was actually getting Radhika’s approval more than anything else. With the passage of more time, their discussions started turning more frequent and weren’t limited to just theatre or plays. Both of them relished each other’s company and whiled away an ample amount of time together, even outside the college campus; so much so that whispers started making the rounds that Tonmoy’s adulation for Radhika whipped up his recent break-up with his girlfriend. Radhika was closely involved with an NGO and she would often include Tonmoy in various ventures. Whether it was any issue concerning the students in the college, or anything related to larger social affairs beyond the college domain, Radhika would always stand firmly on the front line to raise her voice; and that nature, slowly and steadily, trickled down to Tonmoy as well. He gradually grew into her right-hand man, her primary side-kick. Whatever she would plunge into, Tonmoy would surely be there to help her- be it organizing the annual cultural fests, or running social media campaigns to raise awareness regarding the unfair pay-cuts of contractual Grade-IV employees- be it distributing books amongst slum children in the neighboring locales, or raising questions against the authorities in regard to the unjust demolition of those slums- Tonmoy would always be at her disposal to make things easier for her. She would even tag Tonmoy along when she visited flood relief camps in lower Assam every year. Their group would muster as much aid as possible, monetary or otherwise, to pass it on to the camps. Tonmoy helped Radhika raise funds for an old age home once, which was nearly on the verge of shutting down. The maximum contribution was offered by Tonmoy’s family itself. Since then, Radhika made a habit of teasing Tonmoy whenever she saw even the slimmest chances- “I don’t worry about raising funds anymore…” she would nudge Tonmoy with the elbow, with a cheeky smirk on her face. Tonmoy would often be at the receiving end of such sly humor coming from his friends- “You won’t get it, Tonmoy. These are not first world problems”- “You are too rich to understand it buddy”- “You don’t have to worry about these things… Don’t worry, you are safe…” Tonmoy always welcomed it sportingly as he knew that those remarks were just a form of banter between friends and did not arise from a place of malign. But it still did pinch him a bit. He would deliberately try to step out of his comfort zone to prove it to his friends, even though none of his friends actually ever asked for it. He would prefer travelling by the bus rather to his private car- he would sleep over in the hostel without grumbling about the heat- he would invest extra effort to be nice while chatting to a working-class person; be it a watchman or a driver or a peon in the college- and he would carefully steer clear of uttering anything that could give others even the slightest of scope to take a dig at his privilege. Radhika could always sense his unease whenever someone poked him about his wealth and an affluent lifestyle. She would just subtly tell him not to take any of it seriously, “They are just pulling your leg. Don’t take it to your heart… We all are richer than the majority of the society. We all are much more privileged than many others… But what’s important is the awareness of that privilege… The acknowledgement of it… And what you eventually do with it. It’s important to look beyond your immediate reality…”
          As Tonmoy was gaining maturity and evolving into a man of his own principles and notions, he started looking at his father through a different prism. He had always admired how his father expanded his business and built an empire on his own, starting from the very scratch. When he was younger, he used to take great pride in showing his friends the enormous flats and malls his father had built. At that time, Guwahati didn’t have too many malls around the city and it was always a matter of delight for Tonmoy to step inside the biggest mall in the city, whose primary share-holder was his father. His father would also earn a lot of government contracts, sometimes for a fly-over, and sometimes for a four-lane highway. He had been witnessing his father’s intimacy with the political leaders ever since he could remember and that also added massively to his pride. His parents would host the local MLAs and ministers over dinners in their house and he would boast about that the next morning in school. But now, he was slowly starting to understand the intricacies of it. For the first time in his life, he was being able to look beyond those towering buildings, those broad highways, and those gigantic pillars of the fly-overs. He was being able to look at the blood and sweat of the workers who, for years, slogged their guts out under his father; at whose expense he was enjoying all the luxuries he got in life. He was being able to look at the extent of exploitation of a large section of the society by the other section, and the contrast between the sorts of lives those two sections usually lead. He could see now why his father would often whine about the pleas and demands of the workers in front of his mother. He could also see now why his father, on Bihus and Pujas and Diwalis, would send extravagant gifts to the leaders and the government officials. He was seeing his father from an objective, detached lens. The entire image he had of his father for so many years was disintegrating bit by bit.
          The disintegration actually started way back when Tonmoy was in his early teens. That was the first time he got a faint hint of his father’s affair with his maternal aunt. He was studying in his room when he overheard his father and aunt exchange murmurs in the adjacent room, accompanied by soft giggles. After a point, the hum coming from the room had stopped. Just when Tonmoy trod out to search for them, he realized that they had locked themselves inside the bedroom. It sent quivers down his spine; but he still managed to budge near the door just to check whether it was actually locked. He gently pushed the door with trembling hands. He dashed back to his room in a flash, with tears rolling down both his cheeks and spent the next hours trying to digest what he had just seen. In the following months, he wrapped his head around the fact that his aunt was not the only woman his father had a fling with. He would listen to his parents having rows over his father’s frequent “business trips” and “late-night meetings”, and all Tonmoy could do was to weep silently in the next room. He would put his ears near the door to listen to what they fought about. Each time his mother shouted that she would call off the marriage and go away, Tonmoy’s heart would start thumping faster. His fear was further enhanced when he got to know that his mother, too, was romantically involved with one of her colleagues. He could sense apocalypse closing in on him and he didn’t have anyone to confide in. He was too young to grasp the extent of the mayhem surrounding him. He was too young to judge his parents either. All he yearned for at that point was the assurance that his mother wasn’t going to desert him. Even though the myth of the “happy family” was fully wrecked right in front of his eyes, he still wanted a fake reassurance that it was still that same family which he perceived it to be.
          During that chaotic period, he got much closer to his mother. He valued her presence more than ever and he could gauge the strength his mother had to possess to keep the family together. He never saw his mother break down in front of him. He could sense what she was going through; but he didn’t know what to do to ease her off the stress. His mother too never brought anything up, not even in the moments of weakness. Slowly with time, he got a little thick skinned about all of it. The fights didn’t stop, though it definitely became less frequent. There wasn’t any radical shift in his father’s behavior. He could smell that the affairs continued even after all the fights. Gradually, all of it became part of the routine and he hardly got disturbed by it anymore. His parents also seemed to make peace with it, even though he never understood how one could. Sometimes his parents would spend time like an ideal couple and often engaged in conversations that lasted an eternity; and at times they would be like two strangers, who had been punished to stay under the same roof against their own will. His mother tried to keep herself engrossed in her job and his father anyway didn’t spend too much time at home. And in these years, Tonmoy just kept floating away from his father more and more. There had been many occasions where he pondered confronting his father. There had also been many occasions where he considered asking his mother why she puts up with all of this. But still, somehow, he could never lend a voice to all the turmoil and the innermost conflicts that kept troubling him like a cancer.
          But after he had grown up, he had a different take on things. All these years, his “conflict” with his father was personal, which concerned only the family. But now, he had larger ideological differences with his father. He didn’t shy away from voicing it out anymore; though, the dissent still had to go through his mother only. He never confronted his father upfront. His father had a clear idea of what Tonmoy thought of his work, or him in general. Geeta would often tell her husband of the regular rants coming from their son. On most occasions, His father would laugh it off mildly; and at times, he would make an effort to justify himself in front of his wife. But he also couldn’t talk to his son candidly in a way which could clear out the negative air a bit. Both of them would have loved an intimate prolonged conversation, even at the cost of it ending in the form an argument. But both of them would eventually succumb to the communication gap, which they had gotten comfortable with by then.
          As far back as Tonmoy could trace, he had been hearing from everyone that he, in due course, would have to take over his father’s dynasty one day- as if he was sent to earth just with that sole purpose. Even though he never paid much heed to it in his childhood; but the thought subliminally did linger on in the back of his mind. But after completing his master’s, he was pretty sure that he didn’t want anything to do with his father’s business. He made it very clear to his mother one day and made sure that his vehement decision reached his father as well. He told her that he was applying for MBA abroad the following year and he would only go if he gets full scholarship. He was utterly resolute about the scholarship as he didn’t want any financial support from his father anymore.
          By then, Tonmoy got really involved with the NGO. Since he took that year off to prepare for the entrance, he had enough time to devote to the NGO’s ventures. The Anti-CAA protests also got underway by that time and the entire region was in a dreadful shape for a couple of days. Like every other student in the state, Tonmoy and his friends also flung themselves into the protests. Radhika led the peaceful rally organized by their college. The entire state was fuming with rage against the oppression. It was after years that the state was witnessing such a vast group of people taking to the streets to assert their strife with the government. Tonmoy’s parents did their utmost to stop their son from stepping out of the house as they feared that something might happen to him in that bedlam. And the fear escalated after a seventeen-year-old lost his life to police firing. But nothing could deter Tonmoy from going out. Each day he would return home in fury and pour out his anger in front of his mother- “Isn’t this the government you guys voted for? Is this the kind of governance you guys want? Can’t you see what they have done to our state! What they have done to the country?” Tonmoy wouldn’t even allow his mother to speak. He was well aware that his parents also opposed the CAA bill, like most people in Assam. But still, he vented out the frustration he had with the larger society in front of his mother as usual. On top of that, his father’s long-standing association with the government also boosted his outrage further- “I should be ashamed that my father is associated with such people. You should be ashamed that you guys have invited these people to your house for dinners…”
          “What do you know about your father’s business? Have you seen where he has started from? Do you understand the complexities of it? Do you know how the system functions?”, Geeta retorted with a stern voice when she had enough of Tonmoy’s rants.
          “I may not know anything. But I at least know that I would never support these monsters. I would never tolerate such injustice… Such tyranny…”
          “Who said your father supports them? He himself was a part of the student movement back in the day. Have you forgotten about that? Have you forgotten all those stories he used to tell you? Do you think he can agree with CAA? Just because he knows them or just because he is on good terms with them now, doesn’t mean that he supports their decisions… Tomorrow there would be a different government. There would be a new set of people he will have to be in good terms with… He will have to do it… It’s his job… He will have to do it in order to get his next contract… That’s the way it functions…”
          “But that doesn’t mean that everyone has to succumb to it”, Tonmoy burst out. After he realized that he raised his voice too much; he took a second to cool down, before starting again- “There has to be some integrity… There has to be some conscience… If every individual blames it on the system, then there will be nothing left… And what system are you talking about? I’ll tell you what the “system” means. The “system” means that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. The truth is that the system works only in favor of people like us. And people like my father takes full advantage of the system. He has built his entire business out of the exploitation of the working class. His comfort comes from their blood and sweat…”
          A tender smirk leaked out of Geeta- “Our” comfort… The comfort you are talking about is not only his. You are also a part of it…” Geeta waited for a second to see if Tonmoy had any reply. But when she saw Tonmoy averting his gaze, she carried on, “At your age, it seems like you can change the world… It seems as if the world is waiting for you to be rescued. There is an inherent urge to speak against injustice. There is an inherent urge to change things. But as you grow up…”
          Tonmoy barged in, “If every person thinks that way, nothing will change… Nothing will change… The inequality will keep growing… We will move back to the ages of slavery… Nothing will change…” Tonmoy’s tone slowly got milder. Noticing that, even Geeta didn’t respond as she could feel exactly where it was going. They have had tons of arguments of such nature. Both of them sat there silently for a while before Tonmoy resumed speaking in a soft voice, “And… And I am trying my best to get rid of this “comfort.” I don’t need his comfort. I will earn my own…” Geeta thought of adding something further, but chose not to as it might stir him up again. All she offered at that moment was a comforting smile.
          A few months down the line, his father got entangled in a case concerning the demolition of a slum. A shopping complex was to be built in that same space. The local MLA’s name also popped up and there were charges of corruption too. It made it to the papers; and Mr. Kalita’s name was flashing all over the media. Just a week prior to that, Tonmoy’s results came out and he couldn’t earn the scholarship. It took quite a toll on him and he gradually went into his shell. He spoke to Radhika on a few occasions; but even she failed to cheer him up. The only feasible way Tonmoy could get into his desired college now was by paying the huge admission fee. In addition, he would have to pay rent as well. He was in a grave dilemma as he didn’t want to waste another year. But he surely didn’t want to go back on his words either. While he was in the midst of all the turmoil, his father’s case ruffled the family’s peace to a large extent. Tonmoy himself, with the NGO, was working for the that very slum his father had demolished. Radhika tried to contact Tonmoy to inform him that they were trying to run a social media campaign. They also planned a protest in front of the secretariat. But till then, Radhika didn’t know that it was actually Tonmoy’s father who was involved in the matter. When someone apprised her of it, she sent a text to Tonmoy- “I understand if you don’t want to join us. Your family will need you in this, especially your parents. Do take good care of them… And yourself too… I hope that my decision of going ahead with the protest doesn’t affect our friendship. I guess, you also would have done the same… Do call me whenever you feel like talking…” Tonmoy didn’t text back, nor did he call; not because he was upset with her, but because he was too tired of the unrest that surrounded him. Radhika also knew him well enough to understand that he was passing through a fretful phase and he needed time by himself. Tonmoy himself couldn’t understand why he didn’t tag along to stand by the people of the slum, whom he had spent so much time with. Was it just because he completely retreated into his own shell and his mind was fully occupied with his admission? Was it just because his father was directly involved this time? Or was it because, somewhere deep down inside, he knew that no matter how much they protested, eventually nothing fruitful was going to emerge out of it!
          His father spent most of his time at home, hoping for the storm to get over quickly. It was almost after a lifetime that Tonmoy was seeing his father at home for such a long stretch. He could clearly sense the fatigue in his father’s dejected face. The silence between the two still prevailed. But surprisingly, his father’s worn out face could evoke a little bit of empathy in him. He spent the past few years hating the man called Mr. Rajib Kalita. But that image of the man Tonmoy carried with him all this time, was slowly overshadowed by the image of a father. The ideological differences were slowly overshadowed by the innate bond between a parent and a child. He himself was surprised by the sudden unfolding of those emotions. Tonmoy still knew that his father was wrong and his firm beliefs didn’t allow him to show any sort of mercy towards him. But Tonmoy still couldn’t voice anything out against his father. He just couldn’t make himself to do it, and he hated himself for that.
          A month and a half later, he was all set to join the very college he wanted to. His father had taken care of the fees and also made all the other necessary arrangements. His parents went to the airport to see him off. As he was placing his luggage on the trolley, his mother had already started shedding tears, even though she exerted herself not to. She hugged him for nearly half a minute before kissing him on the cheeks, while rubbing her moist eyes. Then he exchanged a fleeting glance with his father and could sense the presence of a minute teardrop in the corner of his eye too. Both of them didn’t utter anything, as usual. His father just put his hands on Tonmoy’s back to pat it tenderly. It was some sort of a farewell gesture, perhaps bearing blessings which he couldn’t express to his son directly. That was the only form of physical touch they exchanged in many years. While he was sitting in the lounge after the security check was done, he saw a text on his phone. It was from Radhika. It had been months since he spoke to her. He didn’t reply to her texts, neither did he pick up her calls. He just assumed that he would have to explain a lot to her. Deep down, he knew that she would respect the decisions he eventually made without any judgement. But still, he unnecessarily put the pressure on himself and didn’t want to go through the tiring process of justifying things. He opened the text, while the announcement for the boarding was being made. It read- “All the best for your New Journey!”

Bio: Adhiraj Kashyap is professionally a filmmaker, whose films have been screened at major film festivals such as “International Short Film Festival Oberhausen”, “Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival” etc, and an alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). His interest in literature has grown with time and the format of short fiction has always attracted his attention more than anything else. A few of his short stories have been published in a bunch of national and international magazines, such as “Ellipsis… Literature & Art”, “In Parentheses”, “Indian Ruminations”, “The Universal Journal”, “East India Story” etc.

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