I was not yet eleven months old when I spilled a pot of just-boiled water on myself, scalding three-quarters of my body. The cook, in preparing evening tea, had left the water unattended on the table, and I managed somehow to pull the tablecloth, and everything on it, down on me. I grew up with heavy scars on my torso and thighs, skin like so much crumpled cardboard. The scars on my face were lighter, and they eventually healed and disappeared, but even as I grew and my skin stretched, my chest and stomach were permanently emblazoned with a design that resembled either a campfire or a giant blossoming lotus.
My mother had been playing bridge with some friends in the living room at the time of the accident. A woman who had quit her successful job when I was born, her guilt at what she considered unforgivable neglect persisted through the years in an oath never to play cards, in any form, ever again. She never gambled with friends and family at festival-times, never played rummy or Jack-Thief, not even UNO with my sister and me. Through childhood, I insisted often that she join us children, arguing that since she had sworn off cards for me I could free her from her promise ("I say it's all right"), but she never did. And this simple but absolute demarcation of games I could and could not play with her instilled in me very early an itchy awe of the sinister nature of cards.
Our family of four moved regularly. My father's job as a chef took him all over India, and then to Sri Lanka and Oman. Every summer though, we would visit our grandparents and family in New Delhi, where my sister and I would read during the heat and play outside when the sun was low. My grandparents' house smelled like my grandmother's cooking, my grandfather's Godrej shaving cream, thick incense from the prayer room. There was the musty smell of books with their thin, cracking pages and volumes of bound Bengali literary magazines that my grandmother and mother read while my sister and I read English books from the public library. And once a week, old men would gather in the living room with my grandfather, fill the house with the pungent smells of snuff and cigarettes, and play cards. The children around—my sister, occasional cousins and I—were warned to be quiet. Hushed, through closed doors we would listen to the clinks and clatter of the plastic chips.
How curious it was to me that adults would play so seriously, with so much ceremony, and elevate neon-coloured plastic coins to such status. My grandfather kept all his chips in a tin box that we saw sit on the glass-doored cabinets next to his copies of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. Children were forbidden to even touch the box, let alone play with the chips, so when my grandfather bought a new set and gave my sister and me his old chips, we were overwhelmed by the sacred nature of the gift. We played treasure-hunt with them, eventually burying the tin, with Monopoly money added, somewhere in the tiny front yard, digging it back up every summer.
Even though they were Hindus, my parents had enrolled my sister and me into separate Catholic schools to guarantee the best education possible. There were many non-Catholic students, and when time came for the weekly one-hour Bible class, we were directed to a substitute class, Moral Science, in which we read stories of children who found wallets full of money and returned them to their rightful owners. It was essentially, I was given to understand, the same things learned by the Bible-class boys, but divested of the trappings of religion. The way I understood it then, morality and religion were the same, and the Bible class was just a different delivery system. My parents thought it was a wonderful idea, and the Moral Science textbook became, over the years, a supplement to their own lessons against lying, cheating—any kind of unacceptable or disappointing behaviour. All of which was simply called "being bad," and included everything from disrespecting your elders to things that elders could do that were unforgivable in children—things like smoking, drinking, and gambling.
This was not related to God or gods in any manner. Such behaviour was practiced by many of my heroes, comic-book characters like Tintin and Peter Parker, people who abstained from the dirtier habits of villains and imbeciles they encountered. Lessons from my parents, too, were not connected to any beliefs other than clean living. Religion I learned of from stories. Mythology—Greek, Roman, Norse—appealed to me, and was a natural successor to the fairy-tales I was outgrowing. For me, stories from the Bible and the Mahabharata were the same as the Iliad, with one notable difference. All around me was a population of people who believed these stories, used them in everyday life, and my parents were part of this population. If people talked of gods and what they had done to whom, I listened, happy but puzzled at how the stories I liked so much were shared by adults. Fairy tales for grown-ups, I thought, and watched (in slight amazement) as adults again encroached into the world of children, annexing stories of magic and power into complicated systems.
Although my mother insisted that I pray every night, I felt that the entire thing was slightly silly. God (she never specified which god I should pray to) meant a character in tales. This was not a loss of faith, it was confusion. I never understood how my parents, so adultly strong and powerful in every other respect, could immerse themselves into stories.
When we moved to Sri Lanka at the end of fourth grade, my sister and I were enrolled in a British school for international students. This was the first time I attended a coed school, the first time I interacted, on a daily or any basis, with 'foreigners'—Europeans, Australians, as well as Sri Lankans—and the first time I was told that the story books I read could be academic. Study of literature as a school subject presented a strange and unexpected confluence of what my parents wanted and what I liked. Whereas I had always done well academically, now I drifted away from Math and Science, finding glee in books and then writing and talking about them. I was cheating somehow, I was sure of it.
Drawn by the name of Roald Dahl, whose books I read cover to cover, I picked up The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar from the British Council Library to which my parents had gotten me a membership. The title story dealt with a man who developed yogic powers (a thrilling connection to India) and then used them to see through cards in a casino game called blackjack. A brief explanation of the game was part of the story, and I was drawn to it—my first elaboration of the rules of gambling—by the excitement of the story as well as the name of the game.
Blackjack, to a reader of crime comics, was a small cosh with which people knocked others out. The impact of learning a game named after a weapon, a gambling game, and learning it from a storybook at that, was heady. I taught my sister to play and then my friends, and with only a portion of the rules entrenched in our heads, we developed a game we were sure was played in Monaco, and lost ourselves in it.
We played for toothpicks, and although my mother did not approve of us gambling with cards, she never forbade us. We played badly, of course, thinking only about twenty-one, focusing entirely on the quest for the perfect score. I had learned the game from a story about beating the game, and my vision of blackjack, and card gambling in general, was coloured by the ever-present notion that I could intuit what the cards were going to be, I could beat the system the way Henry Sugar did, hitting on a nineteen to make a twenty-one.
I grew up with a strong idea of right and wrong; my parents taught through example, for the most. My father had smoked since college, until my sister and I, full of children's indignation in the face of an obvious wrong, made him quit. He drank, but light brown drinks, unlike the more amber liquids in his friends' glasses. "Everything in moderation" was a mantra for him, extending over the years into every lesson he taught me, up to the awkward conversation about drinking when I was twenty-two. And the only time I saw him gamble was during the festivals, when the entire Bengali community of Colombo would gather in new clothes and sparkling jewelry, eat a banquet, and then clear the living room floor, spread a white sheet on it, and play a three card game. They played with real money, abandoning artifice like toothpicks and chips. On the sheet I saw paper money, different sizes and colours, and coins, heavy sounding, which people picked up and abandoned cards over. Fascinated, I sat by my father as they gambled, not understanding, but wallowing in the electric seriousness of adults playing.
My father was reckless in many ways, according to my mother. He bought nice things we could not afford, because he enjoyed a particular piece of gimmickry or craftsmanship. Over the years, he pursued his dream of opening his own restaurant, and as many times as he was beaten by bad business deals and shady partners, he clung to his ideal that he would create the dishes he wanted to, and make money without working under fools. My mother would scold him as he cooked at home.
"You're not in your five-star hotel now," she would say in mock anger. "That's the whole month's butter you just used for dinner."
My mother, on the other hand, was sensible and disciplined. She managed the finances of the family, taking over after a particularly mysterious disappearance of money from their bank account. She never gave me or my sister pocket money, but decided what we needed by herself or, every now and then, on the basis of a well-made argument by her children. This last thing in particular was a special problem to me, being surrounded by kids who were given allowances on a regular basis. Of all childhood moments, every occasion I held cash in my hands, whether to pay fees at school or buy a loaf of bread from the neighbourhood store, remains as an intoxicating moment. To see my father play with money was hypnotic in its temerity; it made me a co-conspirator, getting away with a dangerous foolishness.
The festival of the goddess Durga is the highlight of the Bengali year. New clothes, no school, toys, the entire neighbourhood celebrating, and money. Every relative gave you money, it was the one time of the year that you would be rich and could spend on whatever you wanted. Not even birthdays worked that way; that money was earmarked for the year, books and clothes and toys that your parents would buy. But during the festival, the money was to be spent then, in those four days, and the urgency of this limitation, coupled with the excitement of having a wad of cash in your pocket, makes you very nervous.
The religious parts of festivals did not bother me. I stood in crowds, thick smoke from coconut husks and incense burning my eyes, clutching marigolds to throw on idols at the right moment of intoned prayer. Or my parents took me aside after my bath, and I sat with folded hands before the figurines and pictures in the prayer room, then received blessings from flame and ash. All of this meant something, but I knew only that I had to do this because my parents wanted me to. When they went to the temple (they always found one, even in foreign countries) I went with them, but less and less frequently. Over the years I filled up with ideas and objections, and although I never challenged or argued with them openly, they realized that their son was not a believer. My mother asked me when I was fifteen if I still prayed, and I could not remember the last time I had. Gods and goddesses were to be celebrated, but I was content for them to rest as myth and fiction, drawing what I felt was far greater pleasure from being secular and still moral.
When I came to Mississippi, to attend university, I left my family with anticipation and excitement. I was alone, terrifyingly and wonderfully, for the first time and completely responsible for myself. My mother cried for a month, I think; she could not talk to me the first three times I called home because of the crying. I was lonely, but surrounded by discovery, and swimming in independence. I got a job in the cafeteria, and being paid for the first time made me feel, like I had reading stories in school, as if I had cheated somehow. I was washing dishes at minimum wage, twenty hours a week, but every paycheck was a surprise, a mistake in the system that I was exploiting. Still moral, I had no vices other than movies and fast food, on which I spent as much money as possible. I derided people who smoked and drank, choosing instead to debate religion with the alarmingly large number of youth I encountered steeped in it.
I met Kris my last semester as an undergraduate. He was part of a large group of friends I had made through my sister (by this time also a student at the university) who would come over to our apartment from their dorms to party or hang out, new behaviour that had become routine. He was also an English major, loved many of the same books I did, and gave me my first drink, first cigarette, and taught me to play poker, in the first three months I knew him. My life in the United States had been irresponsible so far, but only marginally. Suddenly it seemed as if there was an explosion of vice, a thrilling joyride, and gambling was now a part of it. A year later I was riding with friends to the casinos on the Mississippi coast, playing blackjack with paycheck money, winning sometimes, losing more often, never once regretting the abandon I had adopted, indulging myself in a way that would make my mother cry harder and was very distant from my father's ideas of moderation.
Kris and I talked about poker and blackjack the way we talked about movies. We analyzed, reminisced, complained, offered solace or congratulations to each other. Sometimes at the casinos, Kris would stand behind me at the blackjack table, "spotting" me by taking chips off the table as I won. Sometimes he would say "You got it—doubled your money, you should get up." At other times I would lose all my money and go ask him to either return my winnings or loan me another fifty. Fifty dollars, almost two thousand rupees. It was unthinkable to convert the money, something you stop doing early on in the country, but it occurred to me at the casinos. What would my parents think, how would they possibly understand?
I played a lot of cards and I talked even more cards. Gamblers talk cards, reminiscing, boasting the way others discuss women or politics. After I learned poker, I stopped playing blackjack. Blackjack blurs together, becomes a routine of betting, losing, betting, winning. Poker, you remember the hands. You may say, "I won thirty dollars last night," but what you remember, what you dream about, are the hands. You think of cards, the combinations, how people play and what the best hands are. You bluff, represent hands you don't have, or sit and wait for that miraculous seven or queen to show up and give you the best of all possible hands. I had completed the conversion—from a game into a system. At least, all the talk made me feel so.
And from years ago, from the British Council Library comes the idea of knowing the cards, needing a particular combination, and almost willing it to happen. The excitement lies in not having a safety net, but always coupled with the ghostly idea there could be one, somehow all the irresponsibility and risks will pay off because there has to be something governing this, there has to be a code to crack.
I am what's called a 'chaser,' a bad poker player because I play wanting things to work out. I will hold on to hands hoping for miracles, wishing the perfect thing happens every time. It's foolish, and I try to think differently, but sooner or later I slip back.
It wasn't until very recently, when my parents came to the United States for my sister's marriage to Kris, that I asked them about my childhood accident. It shocked me to hear the emotion and excitement that entered my parents' voices as they told me.
"I rushed home," my father said. "Your body was smoking."
"The hospital said to put you in the freezer immediately," my mother said.
"I was running with you in my arms," my father said, "and your skin was peeling off, sticking to my shirt."
"There was no doctor at the hospital; he had gone to a nearby village."
"You were dying and we were running around a hospital with only nurses and peons."
"Then, a doctor came, from nowhere!"
"He didn't even work in the hospital, he was picking something up."
"He saved you, and he wasn't even supposed to be there."
And then my parents paused. My father smiled and shook his head. "We went to him later. We did not know how to thank this man."
"You know what he said?" my mother asked. "He said, 'Mr. and Mrs. Chakraborty, I can show you dozens of records, less serious burns, less area covered, much older children. I can show you how they died, or were crippled. Thanks? No thanks for me. This is a miracle.'"
And they paused again. When my mother spoke, it was almost nonchalant, but I had never talked to them about this, never heard them be so detailed, so frank.
"The thing is," my mother said, "two days, just two days before that we had an argument with a couple over dinner. We were young, college educated, skeptical. We argued the existence of God. And then this happened. We prayed. All the time you were in the hospital, from the moment I saw you on the floor, heard your crying, I prayed. It was like God was warning us. And all we had was prayer."
They told me about what came next. How I was so heavily scarred that they had to put me through exercises every day in which they would twist my head and neck to keep the tissue from thickening and crippling me. How I howled in pain every time, how it was almost unbearable and how they cried all through it, how my father had to hold my arms and legs while my mother moved my head from side to side. And they told me how they prayed throughout that.
All this came out as my parents sat talking to me. I listened and thought about these two people, not my parents but just two people, who had devoted their life to their children and raising them the best they could, who were now here to see one of their children marry and settle down far away from them. They talked of their faith, and presented me, a person who comes closest to prayer when wishing for cards, as their trump.
Listening, forced to understand instead of preparing a rebuttal, I was jealous. They had something that I could never have, but wanted more than ever. I think most atheists wish they could believe in God; they are simply incapable of doing so. But for that moment, I felt the loss brought on by that incapability, and it somehow settled in with all those other losses I had accepted in outgrowing and leaving things behind, not always headed in a better direction.
|Copyright © 1999-2018 Juked|