3 years

True Life

My Adventure with Bluetooth

Sumana Roy, a poet, has just published her first novel Missing
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Sumana Roy spends an afternoon in the company of a smuggler

When I first heard his name, I imagined Bluetooth to be someone who’d worked very hard on his make-up for the audition of James Cameron’s film Avatar. It didn’t help that my driver Shibu, who’d first mentioned the young man to me, had called Avatar a blue film. That phrase had great currency in our small town: those films, shown at brunch time in rundown cinema theatres, were said to have corrupted the visual morality of generations. Was it wrong on my part, then, to have imagined a man fuelled by Extra Premium hormones?

Bluetooth, it turned out, was quite a challenge to my short-term imagination of him. When I first saw him through the keyhole of our front door, I noticed how short he was. Only his forehead was visible. And then, the newspaper-wrapped box he’d carried with him. Inside it were packets of white rabbits that I’d ordered for my niece’s birthday. The ‘white rabbits’ were white candies that had been imported from China or thereabouts. The exact location of origin of the rabbits did not matter—what did was that they were not Indian, and hence their appeal to Indian taste buds. Those sweet and sticky candies, wrapped in chewable translucent paper, were the first taste of ‘foreign’ inside my middle-class mouth, and in ordering them for my niece nearly three decades after I’d first tasted them, I was indulging in a kind of nostalgia that was so fake and anachronistic in the post-globalised India she’d been born into that I was half-embarrassed for myself. And yet, on her eighth birthday, I was utterly tempted for her to spring a pseudo-exotic surprise on her classmates. In that, of course, was the subconscious playing out of my childhood fantasies (my parents hadn’t been wealthy enough to be able to afford white rabbits for my classmates; it had been the orange-coloured globes of Parle G candies) for a generation that wouldn’t know or appreciate the emotional appeal of smuggled goods.

When those sticky rabbits became difficult to find in Hong Kong Market in Siliguri, the small town in Himalayan Bengal where I lived, and even the bazaar at Airport More in Bagdogra, the two places which had for decades fulfilled our fantasies of foreign goods, I grew impatient. It was at this juncture that my driver stepped in with his recommendation of Bluetooth’s extraordinary abilities. My middle class upbringing in this town with four international borders within winking distance of each other—with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China—had taught me to keep away from smugglers. Smugglers, like blue films in matinee shows, were bad for moral health. Conditioning is difficult to escape, and so I found it difficult to admire Shibu’s extravagant advocacy of Bluetooth’s skills as a smuggler. I was also suspicious of the name. It was more inauthentic than ‘Nepal’ and ‘Bhutan’ or ‘Lenin’ and ‘Stalin’, the imported names that many brothers went by in North Bengal. But there were the white rabbits.

It was the last days of winter, a fact that had somehow made itself visible in Bluetooth’s dust-stained scarf. He was a short man, one who would, for at least three decades of his life, be called a ‘boy’. He alternated between moving his hair off his forehead and placing it carefully over his left eyebrow, which had a deep scar visible to me even in the winter daylight dark of the room. I surmised—for I could not have asked—that it was a mark left by a violent encounter near a border. Perhaps he noticed my inquisitive gaze, for he was quick to clarify: “It was dark and I still didn’t know the Mechi well,” he said, leaving me to guess the rest—crossing River Mechi on the Indo-Nepal border near Kakarvita in the dark of the night. While I imagined my stories about him in silence, he added, “I was so young then. A beginner.” At that moment, I could not but picture him as a young athlete failing to meet the minimum pole vault mark.

After I had asked him into the drawing room, offering him tea and cookies and later samosas and sweets, I asked him what his real name was. My cook, never short of enthusiasm for filling in her logbook the ethnicity and religion details of strangers, had just a while ago asked me whether the boy was Hindu or Muslim.

“You mean my election ID name?” he asked.

I said ‘yes’, never having thought of my name that way. For Bengalis, there was the bhalo-naam, the good name, and the dak-naam, the nickname. But for someone whose name was ‘Bluetooth’, how did that matter?

“Mujibur Gandhi,” he replied.

I laughed.

He put it down to business policy: “Mujibur in Bangladesh. Gandhi in India. Simple. Good Business.” He said that entire sentence in English. A little later, just to make sure that I’d got it, he repeated, “Simple.” I would later realise that it was a tic, another being the word he often used to describe himself: ‘serious’.

His father was dead, he said, using the English word with a thud-like ending. His mother divided her time between Bangladesh and India. “Passport travel,” he clarified with pride, to show the superiority of her kind of travel over his. I noticed his fondness for English words, realising that it was part of the vocabulary of seriousness with which he wished to conduct his life. His only sister—again the English word, used the way we do for nuns: ‘Sister Arachana’—was married to a ‘BSF’, he added with pride again, the capital letters shining in his eyes as they perhaps did on his brother-in-law’s uniform. Getting his sister married to an officer in the Border Security Force had been a masterstroke, he seemed to imply, not in words but in a wink which he must have regretted immediately, suddenly aware of our unequal affiliations. A BSF man in the family of a smuggler was a joke, an irony and also a saviour, the last most helpful.

Small talk filled the awkward moments while we waited for his ‘assistant’ to come and deliver the remaining four packets of white rabbits. I hadn’t spoken to a smuggler before. That word still existed in scare quotes for me, long after I’d ceased to believe in borders and political boundaries, a bit like a scar acquired on the playground that refused to go. I decided to ask him about his favourite films. He rattled off a series of names, most of which I’d never heard of. These were Bangladeshi films, I assumed, but there were the usual Hindi films on the list too: both Don and Don 2, Raja Hindustani, Pardes and Border. Later, when I reflected on the titles, I noticed how films about India, whether they carried the name or were about it, were important to him. That and the ability of the con man.

The wait for the second instalment of white rabbits seemed never-ending, with his assistant unable to find his way to my house. We began talking about things a little more personal: how not allowing the smuggling of hilsha fish was ‘illegal’, how politicians on both sides of the border were the same, and how English medium education was a must. “If my mother had sent me to an English medium school, I’d not have been a smuggler,” he said. And then, as if his trust in me had magnified suddenly, he said, “Pinky. I love her so much. I’ll give her a good life. But her father calls me a smuggler. He sells English books. English books, yes—isn’t that smuggling too?”

I’d lost the words to console him. I was a buyer of English books and white rabbits, both.

The boring academic in me inevitably surfaces at the wrong moments. “There’s a Bengali writer,” I said, “Amitav Ghosh.” I was working on how to paraphrase what I wanted to say in the most accessible manner.

“Oh, dada’s relative?” he asked, the word ‘relative’ in English; it had become a Bangla word now, like ‘family’. I laughed. He had noticed my husband’s surname on our letter box: ‘Ghosh’. “No, not really,” I replied, “Amitav Ghosh is a famous writer, you know. His stories are so often about borders ... You know, he says something wonderful about kite flying and borders...”

Bluetooth was not interested. He cut me short. “The greatest writer in the world [is] Rabindranath Thakur—he was a smuggler. If he can be a smuggler, all writers are smugglers.”

“How?” I asked.

“Who wrote the national anthem of India? Jana Gana Mana? Rabindranath Thakur. Who wrote the national anthem of Bangladesh? Amar Shonar Bangla? Rabindranath Thakur. One man. Two countries. No border. He’s the Original Bluetooth: taking from here, giving there. Wireless.”