Pia Ghosh-Roy
November 27, 2019

“The Resurrection of Rakesh Sharma”

“The other boys were busy playing cricket on the street when Rakesh went and changed his religion.”

Pia Ghosh-Roy’s “The Resurrection of Rakesh Sharma” was the winner of the 3rd Annual Hamlin Garland Award in 2017.  Dean Bakopoulos, author of Summerlong and judge for the award, had the following to say:

I found Pia Ghosh-Roy’s “The Resurrection of Rakesh Sharma” to be captivating from the opening sentence. Told in a mythic voice infused with melancholy and wonder, the story has a strange and almost old-fashioned haunted quality that shimmers off of its elegant sentences. This is not simply the tale of transformation and escape, but a tale that reflects the surreal blend of the hopefulness, desperation, and envy that comes with poverty, something incredibly difficult to capture in a short and lyrical story. “The Resurrection of Rakesh Sharma” does this with an effortless grace and an innovative structure, making it a story that feels both classic and contemporary, and ultimately, wise.


The Resurrection of Rakesh Sharma

The other boys were busy playing cricket on the street when Rakesh went and changed his religion. He and his sister and his mother and father went out one day in their good clothes and came back with different names, and a copy of the Holy Bible. Rakesh Mishra became Robert D’Souza. Before/After.

Rakesh’s mother was called Rakesh’s Mother, and everyone wondered how they would ever bring themselves to call her Robert’s Mother, which did not sit right on the tongue, nor did it suit her in the slightest. It had never occurred to them to ask her what her name had been before Rakesh was born, so it did not occur to them now to ask whether that name had been changed to Mary or Janet.

The day had begun with Rakesh’s Mother sitting and crying in front of her elephant god, then wrapping the idol carefully in old cloth and putting it away at the bottom of her tin trunk. She didn’t want Ganesha to see them when they got back home from Christ The King Church.

“Stop crying now, Rakesh’s Mother,” her husband said gently. “What good is religion to our lot? At least now the children can go to school, get free food.”

He was a practical man. An exhausted man. He had polished his borrowed shoes with coconut oil, and got ready for church, ready for change. He was buying them change with the only thing he had to barter.

 

Within a few hours of them getting back from the church, the news had spread. The neighbourhood boys milled around Rakesh and spoke over each other like children do when they smell shame or secrets. For there was shame in changing one’s religion, as there was an instinct to keep it secret.

“Robert? They changed your name to Robert? It sounds like those Hindi-film-villains, ya. Now everyone will call you Baab! Why you chose that name, duffer?”

“Why you didn’t ask us, Rakesh, you idiot?!” said another. “Who gets the chance to choose their own name, tell me! You could’ve been Rambo, ya!”

“Hey Rakesh…you should say ‘what men what men!’ all the time now. You know how the Anglos talk, no?”

“Better practise your English! If you speak your Bihari-Hindi in church, they’ll give you nicely!”

“Aye, will your mother wear a frock now?”

“Listen, when they turned you Christian…did they cut your dick or what?”

“Htt, that’s not for Christians, right Rakesh? And not the whole dick, you duffers, they only cut the skin!”

 

Most of the boys lived in the same house. A two-storied house hidden in the labyrinth off C.I.T. Road in Central Calcutta, once the grand residence of a Bengali teak merchant who’d made his money in Burma.

Its facade was strung with tall, shuttered windows that let in the winds and sounds of the city in crests and troughs. A lattice-topped doorway ushered you into an open inner-courtyard around which a covered porch wrapped itself seamlessly like saree around a waist. It was built at a time when houses in Calcutta were glorious, gleaming things. They were idiosyncratic portraits of their owners, with voices as unambiguous as the red oxidised stone-floor that rivered through their rooms.

All that glory is long gone. Most of the buildings have wasted away. After the teak merchant’s death his son divided up his house like a butcher does meat, and rented its rooms to six families, sectioning the long inner porch with partitions of cheap, unvarnished plywood.

The tenants were sectioned in status too by the number of rooms they could afford to rent. Rakesh’s family had a lean windowless room on the terrace meant to store old newspapers. It had a roof of rippled asbestos that burned in the summer and drummed deafeningly in the rains. The room had nothing much to speak of - only a mattress, a shelf on the wall for pots and pans, metal trunks for clothes, and a smell of damp cloth, aluminium and re-boiled rice. On one of the walls, Rakesh had drawn a window with a piece of charcoal from their clay stove, a window with clouds and v-shaped birds. Two nails were hammered into the top corners from which he had hung an old saree for curtains.

Rakesh’s Mother did her cooking and washing on the terrace under a strip of brown canvas that gave her some shade from the sun and kept the rain out of the rice. When rainwater pooled in the middle of the soft roof and made it cave in, Rakesh and his sister ran out of the room for their favourite chore. They took a stick and poked the roof up, and brought all the water crashing down the sides in a shimmering wall that made them jump up and down in happy squeals, and made Rakesh’s Mother smile and swat them back indoors.

And so in that slice of a room, which looked like it had strayed from the rest of the house and lost its way, four people lived their lives and slept with their legs folded in half. They had a few cautiously measured dreams - since even dreams had to be trimmed to one’s means - with which they coaxed each day into the next.

Apart from their room, the only other thing that stood on the terrace was an old water-tank with thick concrete walls and a ladder that led to a latched iron door on top. There was no water inside. The tank had been dry for decades, and all the tenants carried their water home in buckets from a water-spout that stuck out of the street like the handle of an umbrella. Through this, the Calcutta Corporation threw out a calculated gush of water twice a day - three hours in the morning and two in the evening. Water-collection was war. Your status in the house determined where in the water-queue you could stand and how many buckets you could fill. Rakesh’s Mother stood at the end of the line. On good days, she managed to get half a bucket before the last of the water retreated back into the spout and dried up for the morning. She would then carry the water up to the terrace and take her bath, fully clothed, crouched behind the privacy of the water-tank. Unlike her husband, son and daughter, who could bathe directly from the water-spout in the evening, this was the only space she had to herself. The toilet downstairs, which they shared with the servants of the other tenants, was too small for anything other than the hole provided in the floor.

The water-tank also served as a perch for Rakesh. Every day, when he returned from his job at Sreehari Mishtanna, the local sweet-shop where he worked as an errand boy, he climbed to the top of the tank and sat with his thin legs dangling from the side, and his dark eyes both still and adrift. He looked up at the quiet cacophony of constellations above. From the top of the tank, the world looked bigger.

The water-tank was also visited every night by a snowy white owl. The owl was as loud as Rakesh was quiet. It swooped down, clamped its claw on the rusty iron latch and let out a long song of eerie shrieks that seeped into Rakesh’s dreams and shattered the night like glass.

 

The day after Rakesh became Robert, he went missing. For twelve hours, his shoeless father ran around the neighbourhood like a mad man, searching, shouting, searching, shouting. The police flicked their hands and sent the father away, and neighbours shook their heads as they do at the frequent and unfamiliar misfortunes of poor people.

Rakesh’s Mother stood on the footpath in front of the house and beat her chest, wailing beta, beta, my son, my son, not knowing whether to call him Rakesh or Robert, not wanting to incur the wrath of either god at a time like this.

Rakesh’s little sister did not fully comprehend the situation and played hopscotch on the street till she was slapped by her mother for being a girl with a heart of stone.

Evening came, then night. The owl’s shrieks and Rakesh’s Mother’s wails filled the air with such feral lamentation that everyone closed their shutters.

It was early morning by the time one of the boys - the son of a ground-floor tenant - finally gathered up the courage to point to the water-tank. They’d only been playing hide-and-seek, the boy howled, hiding behind his parents, crying louder as the story bubbled from his nose and streamed out of his eyes.

“Whattya? Jesus gave his life for you all, and you’re not even brave enough to hide inside an empty tank?!” the boys had told Rakesh, nudging him in.

They had only shut the iron door for fun, he cried, slid the latch shut for a laugh. It had just been a game, the other boys joined in. And then they’d forgotten. They’d finished their game and ran home for lunch when their mothers called.

Yes, yes, the other tenants and neighbours nodded, Rakesh was always so chup-chaap, too quiet, the boys had just forgotten about him, that’s all. Come, come, they said, patting Rakesh’s father away, no need for all this fuss.

 

Robert D’Souza lives in New York and Mexico City, as is the nature of famous people to inhabit two addresses at the same time. They say he’s a big-shot writer, or is it a painter, married to a white woman, two blond-brown children, they say all this in one breath like the chant of a prayer. It seems he’s not so easy to forget now.

Last year, Robert D’Souza came to the C.I.T Road house with his wife and kids. No letter, no phone-call, just a knock on the door one December evening.

The house had never seen a group like it. Their West Village smell of quiet money and laid-back success floated around the house like lovers in a Chagall long after they had left.

For months, the tenants discussed little else. Did you see the cut of his suit, the polish of his shoes? Did you see his wife? How can this be our Rakesh? Our Rakesh, our Rakesh, the corridors of the old house echoed.

Robert D’Souza held his wife’s hand as they walked along the crumbling walls, past a litter of kittens, to the stairs that led to the terrace. Their expensive shoes squelched softly on wet jute-sacks that covered the lustreless marble floor. The sacks prevented people from slipping on puddles made by the buckets of water carried in all day, and gave the house a pervading smell of wet jute.

As the family climbed the stairs, faces peered out from behind doors, then disappeared. Everyone wanted a glimpse of Robert D’Souza, a mythological creature, a phoenix. But no-one ventured out of their rooms lest they were forced to test their English on his American wife.

When they reached the terrace, the four of them stood close and quiet with their backs to the setting sun, and to the neighbours who had climbed up to their own terraces and were pretending to fly kites or take clothes off the clothesline.

When the family spoke to each other it was so soft that the wind carried none of their words to waiting ears. The wife took a photograph of Robert D’Souza with his arms around the children in front of the room with the asbestos roof, now filled with old newspapers and fat pigeons.

People said Robert D’Souza looked for a long minute at the spot where the old water-tank used to be; it had been demolished years ago, replaced by a black plastic tank to collect rainwater. They said his face showed no emotion, as if his memories had been demolished too, replaced by more convenient ones.

That is what they said, but who can tell. Maybe Robert D’Souza had replaced nothing. Maybe he had allowed the dry water-tank to spill into his life, carefully lugged the concrete block wherever he went. Maybe he had held it like a compass, kept it by his bed, used it to rise from the ashes.

That day, Robert D’Souza walked out of the C.I.T. Road house for the last time. With him were his wife and children, and a thin, young boy who had been pulled out of a water-tank thirty-five years ago, half-dead, his hair crawling with little white cockroaches, his nails caked with blood from trying to claw up the walls. The tank had been deep, and as dark as a coffin. And Rakesh who had only been Robert for a day had banged and scraped and cried, not knowing which god he must pray to. Or if prayers were worth anything if a poor man like his father could swap gods like goods in a shop.

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