JAGRATI

FROM ‘MARA, MARIETTA’
Prologue

̶ I love this owl, Jag!

Standing squat on a dark wood table, the Dhokra sculpture displays its stylized details. Big round eyes and hooked beak fascinate the boy; something from the other world inhabits the bird: He feels its strange attraction. Jagrati brings her hand to its head and lifts it off the body: On three-toed feet stands a bowl of coins, gleaming in the half-light.

̶ They’re old rupees. This one’s my favourite!
She shows the boy a reddish-brown coin featuring a gambolling horse.
̶ It’s beautiful, the boy says. The horse is alive, frolicking. And look at this one!
He examines a silver rosette showing a water buffalo.
̶ I’ve never seen wavy edges like this before.
̶ And have you ever seen square ones? Look.
Three lions stand at the foot of a pillar on a square of tarnished silver.
̶ Wow!
Jagrati puts the head of the owl back onto the body.
̶ And what’s this pyramid? the boy asks.
̶ Measuring bowls, for rice.
She takes the top one off, then lays the bowls out in a line, from the smallest to the biggest. Rhythmic bands of ornamental motifs, gold accents on the metallic patina, ring the earthenware vessels.
̶ We don’t use them, of course. They’re just for decoration.
̶ They look ancient!
She stacks the bowls back into a pyramid.

̶ And these horses!
̶ They’re from Bengal. They’re called Bankura horses.

Of compact body and vertical neck, they stand tall and erect. The boy falls under their spell, as if there were something totemic about them.

̶ Wow! Jag, this is another world!

In a big attic room, sunlight filters through small windows. Tangerine and magenta, crimson and mauve, fire the boy’s imagination. Look! On a buff-coloured rug stands a low box-table, a gleaming treasure chest. He falls to his knees before it; Jagrati joins him there.

̶ This is where I do my homework.
̶ And you sit on the floor like that?
̶ Yes. Or I read on my bed.

On the sides of the box, bronze-plate scimitars adorn the dark wood. At each corner, round legs, striped maroon and black and capped in yellow, rise like pillars above the table surface.

̶ It’s beautiful! It looks like something from a pirate ship.
̶ In fact, it’s from the Punjab. When my great-grandmother died, we had all her furniture shipped over here.

̶ You knew your great-grandmother?
̶ Yes, she came here once. She had a ring in her nose and a blind eye. She taught me some beautiful songs.

The boy imagines what she looked like; somehow he can even conjure her voice. Then his eye catches something in a corner and he starts laughing.

̶ That’s a laughing Buddha. He makes me laugh too.

They drop the marbles into the jar; she puts the lid back on. Picking up the lavender pillbox beside the jar, the boy asks:

̶ What’s in this?
̶ Open it.

His fingertips linger on the smooth cool of the garnet stones decorating the box. He lifts up the lid.

He steps to the bookcase and takes from a shelf the first volume of poetry he sees: Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Selected Poems’. On the cover, in the centre, intense eyes stare at something outside the photo frame—or are they staring inward? Despite the beard, the finesse of the man’s fine-boned features is striking. To his left, an English boy with a wide-eyed gaze; to his right, an elegant Indian man. This will be my book of prayer, the boy says to himself.

̶ That’s Tagore, Jagrati says, pointing to the bearded man. He’s a saint in Bengal.

The boy can’t take his eyes off the poet; everything about him combines to convey a mesmerizing power: The gentleness in his long hands, resting on his lap; the robe that falls wide-sleeved from his shoulders, reinforcing the impression of quiet pride and dignity; the concentrated calm in his eyes. Jagrati is intrigued by her friend’s fascination; she remains quiet, close by his side. That man beside Tagore could be my father, the boy thinks. He feels a bittersweet pleasure as he realizes the English boy in the picture looks perfectly at home. Gently from his thoughts Jagrati brings him back to her: The touch of her lips on his cheek, warm and petal-soft, blurs his vision as tears well up. She takes the book from his hands.

̶ Lift me up, Sprague! I want to get that cord.

The boy bends his knees, wraps his arms around Jagrati’s hips and hoists her up. Little bells rattle as she pulls at the braided cord hanging over the edge of the bookcase; as she gathers it up, he makes out the colourful figures of elephants, trunks in the air, strung between the tiny golden bells.

̶ Steady, Sprague, it’s stuck!

Easing his feet further apart, the boy feels a rush of power through his body: Now I can move the world!

̶ Got it!

He lowers her down and examines the cord she holds before him: A filament of gold spirals around braided strands of black; from beaded strings hang the elephants and bells. Hot pink and brilliant blue, emerald green and deep orange, the elephants glitter in their ceremonial garb. Jagrati twirls the cord between her outstretched arms, sending the bells ringing.

̶ What’s this, Jag?
̶ That’s my diary.

Bound in patterned cloth, closed tight with a loop of elastic, the diary feels heavy in the boy’s hands.

̶ I’ll show it to you if you show me yours.
̶ I don’t keep a diary, Jag.

Taking a box from the night table, she says:

̶ Guess what’s in here!

She puts the box on the bed between them. Grey velvet shimmers in the soft sunlight; on the lid, arrayed in concentric rings, sequins of silver and gold radiate from an amber stone.

̶ It looks like a jewellery box.
̶ Open it.

Her lips parted, her long hair loose, Jagrati rocks back and forth on the patchwork pouffe.

Jagrati takes the cushion from between her legs and stands up; running her hand over the sleek peacock print, she fixes the boy.

To the soft rustle the bands of colour shimmer; Jagrati sighs as she luxuriates in her sensations.

‘India. 50p.’: His hands tremble as with booming heart the boy stares at the stamp. Lavender oval. Lilac ground. Dancing couple. He turns the envelope in his hand: How many hands has it passed through to reach mine? The envelope is light, but in his hands it feels like lead. Open it. Don’t be afraid. The knife slits open the pale blue seal; twitching fingers fetch out the letter.