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In his novel Silverfish Saikat Majumdar (HarperCollins India; 2007) weaves together intimate tales of Calcutta life, the protagonists of which are loosely bound by a collective devotion to words.

We follow Milan, a retired schoolteacher and professor as he ambles around the streets of a contemporary Calcutta ruled under a Communist government. Waylaid from time to time by pot-smoking Westerners seeking apparitions in the fish markets or by angry students protesting against the IMF, he realises that although he 'dabbled with Marxism' in his youth, he has lost most of it. Instead, he is on a simple quest to collect his pension -- a pension that shrunk noticeably under Communist rule, and one that appears to be shrinking further and further into the distance with every hurdle of government bureaucracy that he is forced to overcome.

But it is in Milan's head that Majumdar's real story is playing out. Weary of his own attempts to write, Milan has become immersed in the narrative of one quite unbeknown to him -- a widow named Kamal who spent her life cloistered in the 'tall, proud mansion of one of the noblest families in [nineteenth-century] Bengal'.

Kamal's lyrical words interrupt Milan's reality like blocks of blue through the cloud. They are of a ghostly quality; Kamal, herself, is never quite there -- we are left only with her words on the 'frayed sheaves' of cotton that Milan carries around like a treasure. And this absence of character accentuates the language in which Majumdar has conjured her. It is the process of reading, of writing, that is granter greater significance than the stories themselves.

At the time of Kamal's husband's death, the custom of burning widows is petering out, and the new custom -- of subjecting widows to a living death -- is growing more fashionable. Heads are shorn, vermilion scrubbed out and the luxurious red-bordered saris of the brides are replaced with the coarse white sacks of the widows.

Kamal realises that she has spent almost her whole life stuck behind the lion gates of her husband's house. Her limited view allows only a patch of sky and the grand marble courtyard. The descriptions are repetitive -- we too are confined to her claustrophobic existence in the women's quarters. And gradually, in reaction against death, she chooses to liberate her “time-chained mind” and learns to read, letting “words rain down on the desert of [her] life.”

To Majumdar, words are almost supernatural -- they shape our identity, our history and they fend off death. For what is history other than a collection of different people's lives -- different voices -- different stories? As Milan brushes the dust from the ancient manuscript, he uncovers lost memories -- the “decades that no-one had known to pass, the miracle of a century.”

The metaphor of the silverfish is persistent -- curling its way through Majumdar's pages -- through Milan's mind -- for the silverfish, too, “lives off books.” There is a touching portrait of a lowly magazine stall owner named Moidul -- the man who had first discovered Kamal's story. Moidul had sold all his family's jewellery to make his shop work, and it was stocked high with everything, from obscure cricket journals to antique pornography. For everything he did was “born of a muted love for the written word.” It appears that Majumdar shares Moidul's love; it is the engine for his creativity, and the very same love that has brought this fine new novel to light.

Excerpt: 'the way they spoke English...’

The boy’s fierce words echoed in his head as (Milan) walked farther and farther away from the state government office, past the palatial Taj Bengal Hotel, the Rabindra Sadan auditorium, the St Paul's Cathedral, on the way to Theatre Road and Park Street. This was a face of the city he didn't see often...

Students in school uniforms milled around the shops, buying snacks, music cassettes, checking out the new movies at the theatres, laughing and chatting with the kind of jubilation that comes only immediately after school hours. They were on their way home, to catch a bus or the metro or cars from home waiting to pick them up, and the happy fatigue of students at the end of school day flowed all over them, in their voices, their lazy window shopping and munching potato chips.

How easily one could tell the difference between these kids and the boys at the school Milan had taught all his life! These boys and girls were from some of the most posh schools that were scattered around this area, all private schools, many of them convents run by Jesuit missionaries and Christians of other denominations, orders of priests and nuns from Ireland, Belgium, Britain, Australia and other faraway places, some of them established well over a century ago. It wasn't just the uniforms, the cuts and the fabric of the emblazoned shirts and blouses, the embossed ties and the belts, the fashionable backpacks, the CD players hanging loosely. It was also their lazy strolling through the neighbourhoods, their laughing familiarity with its shops and showrooms, movie theatres and coffee shops. It was the way they spoke English, the wads rolling off their tongues, the lazy drawl, fluid utterances of pleasure and disdain. They walked the streets with abandon, and yet they seemed to avoid bumping into hordes of people the rally had released, the agitated mob from the rural suburbs glided by, never stepping out of the pleasant glass of vacuum, cracking a joke, absorbed in the music of the headphones around their ears.

...Closer home were the boys at the government-run school to which he had given forty years of his own life. The boys who seemed to have wandered in by mistake. They strayed in, lounged around the back benches, spat out at liver-spotted walls, smoked bidis and sang movie songs...How would those boys look in the placid uniforms of the convent schools, gold and blue crests on the breasts? Could clipped English words pour forth mouths lined with tender teeth already stained with tobacco, mouths roughened by streams of street slang tarnishing the family of foes with lurid accusations of incest?

Isobel Shirlaw is a freelance contributor. She lives and works in Dhaka.

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