New Market, Kolkata, 1944

by Ranjabali Chaudhuri

I love shop windows. Their colours, jewels, and mannequins sing the dulcet promise of possibility. They let me be anyone. Superimposed upon the clothes on display, my reflection can be a soldier in a red and gold jacket, a doctor in a white coat with deep pockets or even a gentleman in a gray suit, a red silk scarf and a cream hat. They take my imagination to places I am not allowed to enter. I wish they were the only windows I had to clean.

The pastries look delicious, but I cannot linger. The bungalow has ten windows, framed in painted glass. The sahibs and memsahibs inside do not like to keep them open for long. A servant follows me to keep my hands from straying inside. Everything native is banned within these four walls – the heat, the dust, the words, the people. I steal quick glances of this life made of pastries, pianos, and porcelain. These windows scream at me to work faster, to collect my wages and disappear. Wasps buzz over the white roses that grow on their sills.

It is dark when I reach the club. A man browner than me, wearing the club’s black uniform, points me to the only place where a brown boy with a bucket is allowed. I smile and run. I have been waiting for these windows all day long. Music from inside floats in the air. The sahibs have parked their cars in three neat rows. I use the cloth that hides the contents of my bucket to cover my shirt. Paint spills from a tin I open. I pick a brush and look at the English words our leader has written down for me, at the bottom of my bucket. One word for each window.

Quit India

Jai Hind

Ranjabali Chaudhuri’s work has previously appeared in The Timeworn Literary Journal, Literary Orphans and The Horla Magazine among others. She lives in London.

Image of New Market, Kolkata in 1944 from a postcard with photograph attributed to Gene Whitt.