• From Ganges to Hudson

    Buku Sarkar

    Spring 2024

    At seven in the morning, like any other day, Mr. Munshi left his home and made his way three blocks down Lexington Avenue. He walked by the same trees and the same windows and the same corner deli at exactly the same hour, when everything was quiet. Rather than feeling fresh and rejuvenated from last night’s rest, he had, as usual, tossed and turned and finally, unable to remain in bed any longer, had risen at four-thirty—looking out of the window at an empty avenue, waiting for the sun to rise.

    He was a short man, a rather stout man, and an affable man who knew everyone in the neighborhood and even from a distance. All the other shopkeepers could spot his familiar khaki pants, his checkered hat, his thinning, silver hair, his characteristic slow and steady pace, as if he had nowhere to go.

    “Look, here comes Dada,” they would say as he ambled closer, from blocks away. They had seen him pass by for almost twenty years. So long that he had become a fixture on the avenue, like the ancient signboards and the rundown buildings that were condemned by the city housing department. The very sight of him maintained, for them, a sense of order.

    On the pavement were pieces of broken glass and tossed-out food, remnants of the night before. Mr. Munshi shook his head in disgust. These few blocks, stretching from his studio on Thirty-Second Street, to the last of the Indian stores on Twenty-Fifth, had become the extended terrace he and Usha could no longer afford. Lately, hordes of young graduates looking for a bargain were moving into the vicinity, ruining its camaraderie and peace.

    Some days, he thought there should be a zoning law determined by age. Other days, he dreamt of a long moving sidewalk, divided in two. One for those with cell phones, one for those without.

    Trudging on.

    The cracked sidewalks that led to the shops. The shops that led to the avenue. The shops that led to home. The shops that were his world.

    There was an uncharacteristic chill in the September air, and Mr. Munshi pulled his jacket closer. He feared that winter would come early.

    As he opened the door to his shop, he was greeted by its familiar musty smell, which clung to the dulled fabrics on the wall and the dusty books on the shelves. He lit an incense stick, placing it on top of the filing cabinet. He sat on the only chair, the one usually reserved for Usha, and stretched his short legs underneath the table. But the space was too narrow, and as the chair shifted backward, he hit the cabinet behind, making it rattle. Flecks of burnt incense fell in neat droppings on its surface, as if Usha’s invisible hands had quickly aligned them before they could scatter.

    With each passing day, the store felt smaller. No matter how many old saris and books they gave away for free, how many boxes of old cassettes they threw out, there were always too many things in there—carpets and vases and fabrics and carvings, like relics from some ancient crypt.

    Still, this was Mr. Munshi’s favorite time of the day: early morning, before the sun had risen past the tall buildings; before the other store shutters went up; before the buses switched to their rush-hour schedule; before Mr. Abram’s footsteps hammered up the stairs to his law office on the second floor; before Lewis came to sweep the sidewalk; before Usha arrived and he had to fetch her breakfast; before the phone calls came from Calcutta—his brother, Usha’s sister—asking when he, Mr. Munshi, would next visit; it had been so long they couldn’t remember what he looked like.

    This time of day he sat alone in his shop with a cup of hot tea and two digestive biscuits (dark chocolate, because he had heard that it was good for the heart), listening to news on the radio. Budget cuts, unemployment, tax breaks, Wall Street scandals—such things gave him a head rush, like the morning’s first cigarette.

    The gray walls inside merged with the gray outside. Which was part of the gray that was in the sky. Which was part of something larger.

    How much of the world was in a man.

     He was always so sure there was something more out there. He could just never put his finger on it.

    There was one thing in particular that gnawed at him this morning. Usha wanted to go to Calcutta early this year, to celebrate Durga Puja. They had decided on this—rather, she had decided on this and forced him to go along—over a month ago. After all that had happened, she said this was what was necessary. A pilgrimage. Even though they had no ashes to scatter.

    Despite his wife’s badgering, he had managed, until now, to hold off going to the travel agency to make the booking. But September, which had roared in with high hopes of good weather and good business, was now whimpering away. He knew he couldn’t delay any further. The longer he waited, the higher the airfare would climb. Life always found a way of cornering him.

    Normally, Mr. Munshi would have savored his first cup of tea, dipping the biscuit in before each bite—only the very edge, never more. When he was done, he’d head over to Mohon’s shop for his second. But he decided he was better off at Mohon’s early, before Usha came in and started nagging about the tickets. That’s all his wife ever did. Whenever she spoke to him, it was always some sort of a command. Decades of marriage had left her voice coarse and dry. It annoyed Mr. Munshi, like the biscuit that sometimes got too soggy and dropped into the tea. The only thing he’d done his entire life was give and give to the woman. At least Mohon didn’t want anything from him.

    Mohon’s shop was across the street, above Annapurna—one of the several South Indian restaurants in the neighborhood. Mohon was sitting at his usual spot, behind the glass display case, wedged between the half-opened boxes, their contents spilling out. He wore an off-white shirt that looked as though it had somehow not been washed in weeks.

    Mohon moved aside the pile of untagged kurtas from the floor. He was waiting for his friend and for their customary morning conversation, although sometimes neither uttered a word, their silence occasionally interrupted by each man clearing his throat.

    It wasn’t really silence. There were voices in it.

    Full. Yet, silent.

    Mr. Munshi couldn’t remember when this had become a habit—but now, this ritual was like a morning prayer, without the auspice of which his day couldn’t begin.

    “I say, Dada,” Mohon said, “That’s a great jacket you have on there.”

    “Oh, this.” Mr. Munshi said, somewhat dismissively, although secretly pleased that it had caught the old shopkeeper’s attention. It had been tailor-made in Calcutta, from Barkatali & Bros, and it had weathered three decades and two continents.

    “Maybe, Dada,” he said, shaking his head, “I will also buy a jacket like yours. I think it will help the business. What do you say?”

    Not finding an empty chair, Mr. Munshi settled on top of an unopened box. He was here, perched on possibly the same box, when the Twin Towers fell, when Lehman went bust, when the Madoff scandal was exposed. In all that time, Mohon’s shop never changed. It only swelled to greater proportions.

    “Life used to be so simple, Dada,” Mohon continued. “When I was a little boy, my mother would wake me up with five cashews. ‘Mohon,’ she’d say, ‘if you take five cashews every morning, you’ll never fall ill.’ Then, she’d go into the prayer room and I’d steal into the kitchen and take five more. And I tell you, Dada,” he slammed his hand on the glass cabinet, the dust inside resettled, “I’m close to sixty and as healthy as a horse. I only catch a cold once a year, exactly when the season changes from fall to winter. I know when my throat has a slight itch and there is a funny aftertaste in my mouth that I will be sick in exactly one week.”

    He raised his finger in the air, to prove his case. “And in another week, I know I’ll be completely fine again. I’ve never taken a flu shot, never had to go on antibiotics and—knock wood—never been hospitalized.”

    Dada. Elder brother. Nowhere else did they call him that. In Calcutta he was always Mr. Munshi or Babu. Only family and very close friends called him Anil or Anil-da. Usha’s sister still called him Jamai. On these few blocks of Lexington, however, he was like everyone else––opening his shutters at nine, closing them at eight, seven days a week. He was open on Christmas, on Thanksgiving, on Durga Puja and Diwali. Such was the life of retail.

    Mohon had added Christmas lights around the window to attract customers. Through them, Mr. Munshi stared at the townhouse across the street, the ground floor of which was his own storefront. On the brick wall, above the entryway, hung a large black and white sign in large lettering: FROM GANGES TO HUDSON. He noticed how it had faded over the years. The E was barely discernible and the T looked closer to an I. Still, the name stirred something in him.

    Sandwiched between a Pakistani DVD rental and a halal butcher, his store was different from any other on Lexington. He had thought of the idea when his son Deb was accepted into Parsons and they had moved here from India to support him. He had, at that time, taken one look around the spice shops, and the bric-a-brac of Mohon’s ganesh emporium, and knew his enterprise was going to be unique. Not a shop for hippies who wanted mirrored skirts but a high-end boutique for well-heeled customers. He would sell a certain lifestyle—exclusive Bengali items—the best books, the best handicrafts, the best music.

    The name itself would set him apart from his competitors. Subtle. Clever. Not like Sunita’s Saris or Fashion House. Moreover, he’d work one-on-one with his clients, import whatever it was they wanted—a rare, out-of-print book from College Street, a piece of woven jute furniture, perhaps even a painting by Bikash. Mr. Munshi had already begun to build a bridge from the Ganges to the Hudson.

    It didn’t take him long to find an available space. While wandering the neighborhood one day, he found a sign on the vacant storefront of Mr. Abram’s town house. There had once been an electronics shop on the premises. But the proprietors had packed up and moved out overnight, leaving behind months of unpaid rent, chipped floors, and badly installed shelves. Mr. Abram, an old immigration lawyer, had considered it his luck to find a new tenant so quickly—one who didn’t demand renovations or changes and didn’t complain about the lack of facilities normally found in a proper commercial building.

    Ideally, Mr. Munshi would have preferred a more upmarket location—Soho or Midtown perhaps—to that stretch of Lexington, where the moment that one crossed below Thirty-Second Street, the sidewalks changed in shade—tinged with spit stains and overflowing with the stench of oil. But he had used up most of his savings on Deb’s tuition and on starting the boutique. So, husband and wife had simply covered the floor in hand-knotted carpets and invested in some dimming lights. Everything shows promise in the dark.

           We live in our stories.

    But we don’t die in them. 

    That was the plan, at least.

    We live with them in the hope that they return.

    Tomorrow morning.

    And the morning after.

    There was a time, many years before his family had moved to New York, when Mr. Munshi had his own chauffeur and three servants. Deb attended the best schools and the family took company-paid summer holidays to Calcutta. But he had moved from company to company, from country to country, from one corporate arrangement to another, and the only things he had to show for it in the end were a fussy wife and finances in disarray.

    Perhaps he was being punished for not being braver.

    Despite their modest beginnings, Mr. Munshi loved to walk through his front door, to see his shining glass display case. The shelves of the shop were decorated with books that had colorful spines, carefully chosen by Usha. They were written by the best Bengali writers: Rabindranath, Bibhutibhushan, Bankim.

    It had been hard those first few months—hauling samples of their goods in the back of rented cars to the Bengali convention in Detroit, to the puja celebrations in Edison and Queens. But gradually business picked up and, later, he became the exclusive distributor of HMV music. However, the upmarket products never caught on––the fabrics, the handwoven saris. Customers walked in, admired these wares, examined the fine craftsmanship, asked the price, and moved on to something else.

    “How can it cost a hundred dollars here when it is only two thousand rupees in Calcutta?” one of their first clients had asked.

    Usha—as stiff as her freshly starched sari, smelling of powder and cream––was distraught by the comment. She had been excited to make their first sale, although she was worried about fumbling with the change and the prospect of swiping the credit card through the machine.

    In the beginning, he used to try and explain the intricacies of the importing business to the customers. But he’d become flustered, trying to explain terms like freight costs and tax duty, and they would invariably move on to something else.

    But the couple made a killing on the books, which was initially Usha’s idea (and she always pointed this out). They sold them at ten rupees to the dollar. Everyone was buying books from them, for a time—several branches of the Queens Public Library, some from the Brooklyn Library, even the Department of Education had placed a staggering order one year.

    “Who needs walk-in customers when we do business with the city. Imagine. The city. Who else on this street can claim that?” Mr. Munshi said to his wife.

           He had not made impossible goals.

    He had not stared at the skies.

    On the wall behind Mohon, nestled between the incense sticks and shiny blue packets of slaked lime, hung a calendar from an Indian hotel chain. It had pictures of various resorts—smoothed sand, shaded beneath tranquil palm trees, all the Indian holidays marked in red. Mr. Munshi stared at it while he waited for his tea to cool. There were so many wonderful places he should like to see. But ever since he’d had that dizzy spell, and the pacemaker was installed, he was afraid to go anywhere. If something were to happen, he would be helpless in unfamiliar surroundings. His insurance would consider it an out-of-network service and charge higher co-pays. This is what he had tried to explain to Usha when she insisted that he come to Calcutta. But no one could make that woman listen to reason. Besides, what would he tell their relatives about Deb?

    Nothing was ever meant to go wrong. Life was always meant to be a plan. How he wished his wife had not dressed Deb up in girls’ clothes as an infant, just because she wanted a girl. It had to be the reason for everything that had happened, Mr. Munshi thought.

    Sometimes, especially in the very early days, Usha used to complain about the tight space they lived in. “It’s the size of our bedroom in Calcutta,” she had said, on seeing it the first time.

    “It’s only for now, Usha,” Mr. Munshi reminded her. “Let business pick up. Let Deb finish college. Just a few more years. You’ll see, everything will work out.”

    “Did you know, Dada,” Mohon said as he dropped a bag of tea into a cup of hot water. “They are now saying that eating toast causes cancer?” He pointed to a copy of India Abroad that lay open before him. “What are they going to say next? That drinking tea causes cancer? I tell you, Dada. God knows what those scientists are going to come up with next.”

    Buku Sarkar is a photographer and writer who has grown up between Calcutta and New York. Her writing and her photographs have appeared in various magazines and journals including the New York Review of Books, N+1, and the Threepenny Review. 

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