Author: Pronoti Datta
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
And so, I entered a household trembling with various emotional currents. Shivaji, incredulous that acquiescent Mini had actually contravened his order and brought a stranger’s child home, infuriated that there was nothing he could do about it short of leaving Mini or depositing me back from where I’d come (but where had this kid really come from?). Ratna, ecstatic over the drama, dancing on her toes in anticipation of phoning her masters in Calcutta to report that the child was indeed here and that they could hop into the Howrah Mail for Bombay as they had been waiting to do ever since the news of my adoption was broken to them. But also in Ratna, an incipient feeling of something when she saw my swaddled frame. Was it maternal instinct radiating from her dormant womb? Mini, awash with love for the child of a man she had been passionate about, thrilled at her own audacity and at finally having something in this relationship that she could control.
“You had two things in your favour,” Mini said. “As the offspring of a Parsi couple, there was no question of caste. Secondly, you’re fair. If you were dark-skinned, your dadu-thamma would’ve had an issue.”
In the two days it took the senior Debs to arrive from Calcutta, I had won Ratna over fully. She was prepared to mutiny against her masters if they tried to banish me, aligning with Mini for the first and only time. At last, Ratna could practice her vast knowledge of natal care lying untapped, and Mini let her, out of (a brief period of) gratitude. When I was constipated, which was often as an infant, Ratna would oil a betel leaf and lightly brush my disobedient sphincter with the suppository. When I had the runs, she would feed me a buttery mash of boiled potato and rice, the most effective jammer for a mischievous colon, rolled into spheres with fingers and palm and lined up like soldiers on my plate. She massaged my little body with mustard oil to get my circulation going and for a couple of years every day planted a black dot of kohl on my temple to ward off lurking evil eyes.
The Debs tried to persuade Mini to return me. How could she thrust a stranger’s child on their son, especially since she was the one with a bad uterus? At this point, Ratna, who had overheard the fights between Mini and Shivaji, privately told Shivaji’s mother that the problem was not with Mini but with Shivaji’s plumbing. The doctor had suggested the issue could have something to do with his weight. But Shivaji had accepted defeat immediately, refusing to exercise or diet. Her tactic had the desired effect. The Debs, feeling responsible for their son’s deleterious eating habits, backed off, going as far as to gently suggest to Shivaji that the child might repair his strained marriage. Back in Calcutta, when they told the rest of the family and friends about their adopted grandchild, they made themselves out to be progressive folk.
“Everyone there thinks you were their idea,” Mini said.
They stayed for three months. Initially, they viewed me with suspicion, the way you look at a bag that has been abandoned in the train, worried it might detonate. This was partly because I was obviously not a Deb. I was too good looking, with the milky skin, fleshy features and golden-brown ringlets of a cherub gambolling in the skies of an Italian fresco. But it didn’t take very long for them to warm to me and pitch in with their own ideas of child-rearing. They insisted my head be shaved at the age of two months as was customary. Mini was opposed but gave in since the Debs had accepted me. In place of my Botticellian curls, there grew limp, black hair.
“I cried when your head was shaved,” Mini said. “But those two were relieved to see your new hair because it made you look less foreign.”
What Mini hid from everyone, even prying Ratna, was a box of objects that came along with me. Burjor had wanted Mini to pass it on to me at an appropriate age. She gave it to me when I was eighteen, the day after my naïve confession about Danish Khan. Mini insisted I open the carton in her presence.
“I’d like some privacy,” I said.
“You’re such a coward you’ll put it away at the back
of your cupboard without looking if I leave you alone,”
“I might not be ready.”
“You’re eighteen, you’re ready.”
Excerpted from Half-Blood by Pronoti Datta. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.
ABOUT THE BOOK
‘You see, Moonie, I did a terrible thing for which I had to leave Bombay. I don’t want to burden you, in this letter, with the details of my deed—or my life. It’s a long story and I’m not a man of words.’
It is 2009, more than a decade after Maya read this intriguing letter addressed to her. The awkward, adopted child of an odd Bengali couple, she’s now a 34-year-old journalist in an existential mess that she alleviates by smoking pot and going on long walks with her latest boyfriend. But in order to find the meaning she craves, Maya must confront her past, and open a box of objects she inherited. When she finally does, she’s led on a startling, sparkling journey of discovery.
At the centre of this journey is Burjor Elavia, a ‘fifty-fifty’, an ‘Adhkachru’— the illegitimate child of a Parsi man and a tribal woman—born in a nondescript village in Gujarat. In 1952, not yet eighteen, he made his way to Bombay, where he lived a colourful life—promiscuous, reckless, involved in a string of shady businesses, but also compassionate and a charmer. His greatest achievement was an audacious venture for fifty-fifty Parsis like himself, many of them strugglers, some of them on the make and all of them eccentric. In their tangled, mixed-up, funny life stories, Maya tries to find her beginnings—and maybe her future.
Set in the teeming, varied universe that is Bombay, Half-Blood is an entertaining, full-blooded novel about dysfunctional families, plucky survivors, chancers, mavericks and good-hearted rogues. A celebration of vitality, impurity and other true virtues of life, it is a marvellous debut.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pronoti Datta was a journalist for over thirteen years, covering culture and society in Bombay. This is her first novel and she draws much inspiration from the city. She lives in Bombay (minus cats or children) and works as an editor of digital content.
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