“My mother died last year,” Ari told me one day in a matter of fact way, as if he was giving me the news of a disaster in some distant land, “I’m practically an orphan now.”
I remember dimly now that his father had died years earlier, that Ari was their only child, and that his aunt Sarah, his father’s first cousin, had married an Anglo-Indian and so had fallen from grace, and had declined to bring up the orphaned boy when his mother died. That was the reason he was brought to Chinsurah earlier that year by his uncle (he used the Bengali word, mama), his mother’s brother. He also told me his mama’s name and wrote down his Chinsurah address, when he printed his own name in the last page of my rough book.
Memories tend to play strange tricks: I can’t remember the name of his mother’s family or their address at all, though I remember having written to Ari twice during my summer vacation, and he had written to me once. I can’t recall where he went to school in Calcutta, or how he learned to speak such accent-free, colloquial Bengali.
Ari’s English was decidedly better than mine. I had picked up the spoken version from my English-speaking playmates — mostly Anglo-Indians — with all their grammatical gaffes and mannerisms. Even I could make out that Ari spoke with a purer diction, almost at par with Colleen Butterwick or Johnny Young, pure-bred goras both, who were my classmates in Mrs D’Cruz’s preparatory school. I still remember two quaint English words that I picked up from Ari — parlous and billet. “He’s assigned a billet somewhere in the police lines,” he was talking about his aunt Sarah and her husband, and I am approximating the sentence he framed, “and lead a parlous life of a policeman; how could they possibly bring me up?” Nobody in my life till then had ever used those two words in my hearing.
Today, after a lapse of well nigh six decades, when I close my eyes and think of the Chinsurah I knew, I get clear pictures — unnaturally so — of the terrain, the riverside dhapis (actually backless, solid, brick-and-cement benches) strewn around the several maidans and the esplanade, where locals, young and old, sat down for their evening adda, a string of names and faces — not that I can connect the faces to their rightful names any more, and many random trains of events that had taken place when I was just a boy. With hindsight I know that the inadequate, moth-eaten images were photoshopped in my mind, heightened in colour and contrast, some ragged spots glossed over, the rest sharpened in detail — all without my knowledge, without my conscious effort, and none too accurately at that. I know it, for I can’t recall many details, like how many maidans lay between the field adjoining Duff School and the last one (didn’t it house a boxing club too at one corner?) near the town square. I fail to recall the name of the tea shop, a smoking haven for the older boys from the college, on the lane beyond it that circled the police barracks.
I also remember another part of the town, the seedier one, where modern privies had not come till well past my teens. Every morning dilapidated tractors used to pull several closed, oval tanks in train, yellow muck overflowing from the closed hatches, and all along their arduous route the terrible stench of mixed night soil drowned all else, and spread all sorts of dreaded germs in its wake. Merely thinking of the people, the caste methars, who collected the muck in open buckets from each house at the crack of each dawn, made me shudder.
The riverside zone of the town — where the school was — was the posh locality, old and decadent, some houses already gone to seeds, but were reasonably clean still, and well laid out. There were quite a few dilapidated houses, though, quite close to my peepul, their walls of thin bricks of olden times exposed in obscene poverty, like the hanging udders and prominent ribs of the hag in tattered sari who swept and wiped the floors in my classmate Nirmal Sadhu’s large but ugly parental house nearby.
The one in the corner had an external toilet, built rather high above the ground but facing a lane, perforce, where householders must have squatted straddling a gaping hole, and hoped that their excreta didn’t miss the bucket below.
The entropy increased as you moved farther and farther away from the river.
It seems to me that Ari was my friend for a long, long time but, in reality, it must have been just about three or four months; less, with the month of summer vacation intervening. I met him not more than six or eight times during the entire period.
Ari, who was then living in his grandparents’ house (own? rented? it never occured to me to ask) somewhere near the Crooked Lane, as he had told me once, had to walk quite a distance to reach my peepul. And I couldn’t venture as far afield lest the bus left without me.
His mama couldn’t put him in to any school at short notice, and had promised to take him abroad with him, for they were preparing to migrate.
“We couldn’t possibly migrate to Armenia,” Ari told me, “for it’s under the communists now.”
It was he who had first explained to me that his mama, a tradesman, wouldn’t be allowed in Soviet Russia to do the only thing that he did well.
“Noah’s ark had finally come aground in my fatherland,” he boasted, though he didn’t speak a word of Armenian himself.
So they settled for England. I bid him adieu a week or so before they, his grandparents, mama and he himself, boarded the Bombay Mail. “I’ll write to you once I reach,” he promised solemnly, but never wrote.
The peepul was also my teacher. It taught me to be patient, be introspective to make use of the loneliness of waiting, to read subjects that ordinarily I would never have chosen to read, to observe passers by and try to read them as well, and much more. It also taught me to be stoical in the face of the grief of parting.
Ari was the only Armenian I had ever known personally, though I had seen the Armenian Church, dedicated to John the Baptist, in Chinsurah, in the years after Ari had left. I knew that a few Armenian families, connected to the church, perhaps, stayed back in the town. Pearson Surita (the cricket commentator) and Ivan Surita (an IAS, I think) were the other well known Armenians of Calcutta. And curiosity had driven me to see Armanitola in Dhaka once, though I certainly didn’t meet any Armenian there.
To me Aristides Aratoon was, and shall remain, the last Armenian of Chinsurah.
Read The Last Armenian of Chinsurah (One) at http://wp.me/p1dQVh-hf