Shortlisted in the Himal Short Story Competition 2019.
Hori. No, it’s Henry. His great-grandmother had named him after a ‘distant’ relative she ‘allegedly’ had an affair with.
She had told her daughter-in-law, Henry’s grandmother, on a slow, hazy night sitting by the window of their two-storey, five-room hovel next to the pond. The local boys were smoking their charas right below the window, sitting on their haunches by the water, puffing and passing. The smoke drifted up, mixed with the smell of putrefying water hyacinths and fried fish.
That shit got great-grandmother high enough to start talking in slow mumbles about her life ‘on that side of the border.’ Henry’s grandmother would sit on the floor, mending a shirt or five, listening to her mother-in-law talk about gold, silk, and tussling with her third-cousin twice- removed from her father’s side, behind the outhouse, a month after her marriage.
Sometimes she would say that it happened 50 years ago, sometimes she would say 20. On some other days, especially in winter, mixed with a little bit of brandy, she would say that it happened last month.
“I wanted to name your husband Henry,” great-grandmother would mumble every day, just before nodding off to sleep. There would be no talk about it in the morning, none at all.
Henry’s grandmother had got married to an Andrew and had a daughter. The daughter had a son and then there finally was a Henry. After 50 years, 20 years, after last month.
In that droopy, dull slum next to the pond on the right of the golf club, Henry didn’t get to keep that name for too long. By the time his neighbours had trooped in to see the new child, his name had gone from Henry to Honry to Hori.
Hori is what remained after 40 years. He was pretty certain no one even remembered who Henry was. His mother told him before dying. Just before her eyes glazed over and a raspy breath left her reed-thin body, Hori’s mother clasped his hand, “You are Henry, your great-grand mommy slept with her cousin.”
Hori’s mother had never mumbled the secret out over the glasses of cheap whiskey she drank every night, after she had to get her uterus removed due to the infection she contracted while giving birth to Henry in the government hospital. It was meant to be passed on from woman to woman. Like it had been for 50 years, 20 years, all those months.
It didn’t bother Hori, honestly. He thought about it a few times while standing over her grave at the cemetery nearby. Almost all of his money had gone into paying for the headstone and initially making sure that there were flowers growing around it.
Hori’s mother’s grave was the closest to the open field that covered the further end of the cemetery. It marked the end of the graves and served as a decent pitch for cricket matches. It was wide enough for the balls to not get lost unless it was late in the evening and the boys too scared to search in the shrubs, near the border walls and the graves.
Sooner or later the graves would cover the field, of course. After all, in 50 years, 20 years, one month, all people did consistently was to die. Even secrets weren’t that consistent.
Like Chinese whispers, Hori thought in his head, and chuckled at the genius of it. For him, what remained of his decade-old roots was a joke that he had thought of.
He had once asked his father when they were visiting an old uncle of his in Tangra. “Why don’t we live here?” Hori asked looking around at stacked-up hovels that looked better than theirs. They were sturdier, all their terraces more accessible, the children looked like him. The food was just like what they made at home sometimes.
There were restaurants for that kind of food here, streets of them. Old Uncle owned a small one with a makeshift takeaway window on the side. The room was just about big enough to seat ten people, three tables, six benches, one stool for Uncle. His momos were supposed to be the best in the area.
The skins were delightfully translucent, but still thick enough to hold the biteful of meat in place. The bits of onion, garlic, ginger and spring onions never overpowered the meat mince. The mince was soft pink and smooth before it was cooked, white and smooth when the steam was done with it. Pork and chicken, then lamb after a few years, even fish at a point. There was no beating Old Uncle’s momos.
Hori remembered the juices that dripped down his six-year-old chin as he bit into the momos. He would wipe his mouth with the sleeve of the red sweater his mother had knitted for him. His nose ran from the heat of the chilli sauce into which he had dipped the momos with too much enthusiasm for a child to handle.
The sauce was not a packaged one. It was made fresh every day with tomatoes, red chillies, a dash of fish sauce, salt, sugar, soy and something else. Old Uncle never told anyone what it was.
This something also went into the momos, Old Uncle told Hori once, when he was very drunk. Hori’s father was dozing with his head on the table next to him, half a piece of momo still in hand. It had gone cold, Hori did not want it.
Drunk Old Uncle told Hori that night that his own father was called Henry. And the secret to the momo, the sauce and the soup.
There was a soup too. It wasn’t a soup, strictly speaking. It was a lightly flavoured broth made with chicken bones, usually. Over time Old Uncle threw in lamb bones for more body, pork bones for flavour. No fish bones, NEVER fish bones.
The marrow bits left behind would create a fatty broth that was lightly seasoned with salt, mostly. Old Uncle had once tried to fancy it up with lemongrass, garlic, ginger and a dash of fish sauce.
It hadn’t worked.
The secret is in the bones, Old Uncle cackled softly as he poured out a generous measure of Old Monk for himself and proceeded to drink it neat. He signalled to a thin, frail boy cleaning up the tables. “Give Henry some more food, go to the kitchen and tell them,” he slurred.
The boy nodded and disappeared behind the flimsy, greasy curtain that separated the seating area from the kitchen behind.
“I’m not Henry,” Hori mumbled.
“Yes – yes, you are,” Old Uncle said. He proceeded to put his head on the table and in a moment he was snoring and drooling from the corner of the mouth.
“Why don’t we live here?” Hori asked again in the morning.
“There is no space,” Hori’s father said gruffly as he straightened his shirt out. Old Uncle was yelling at his staff, the food had not been packed and loaded for breakfast. If they didn’t get there on time the other hawkers at Tiretti Bazar would have sold off their food already and no one would be hungry anymore. Pork baos did not taste good stale, Old Uncle shouted at the general chaos.
Old Uncle took the pigs to the market, Hori was taken home.
Hori’s father was hit by a train while trying to cross the rail lines near Babughat. He was drunk on Old Monk, in summer. Hori was seventeen.
Hori dropped out of school enough times to not get into college. The only thing he did do was to spend enough time with Old Uncle to know exactly what he wanted to do.
Old Uncle left Hori his shop. He did not have children of his own. Hori sold the shop and bought a ground floor of a house on Chowringhee Road near the Rabindra Sadan metro station. You could not see the house from the main road. The front facade housed three small jewellery stores owned by Marwaris who lived on College Street; three brothers who hated each other and their father with great enthusiasm.
All three shops sold the same things, at the same prices. The only thing the brothers competed on were the shop fronts, which got a fresh coat of paint every Dhanteras.
There was also a store that sold cigarettes, cold drinks, candy and chips – to break the monotony of old gold and silver. Right between these shops there was a discrete gully that disappeared into a capsule of gloom only to open out in a spot of sunlight that led to Hori’s ground floor. The gully ran between the kitchen backdoors of other Tibetan and Chinese eateries that lined the side of the corner block and a mossy six-foot wall on the opposite side.
To get to Hori’s you would have to carefully step over vegetable peels, chicken bones and stray pieces of boiled noodle. And scrunch up your nose in reaction to the smells from the open drain. Sometimes you would see mice. You would see the mice more on Hori’s ground floor, running all over the floor of the little eatery he had made, with four tables and 16 red plastic chairs.
The lighting was low, single bulbs hanging over the tables. The walls were red. Hori had brought out all the old calendars he had at home and hung them on the walls. That was all the decor it had. After all, no one could really read the dates, Hori didn’t have to change them.
The restaurant only served momos and soup. With no street front, Hori had to spend a lot of money getting a sign painted with a red arrow. For the first six months, he only got customers who walked into the dingy room when other restaurants were full. Hori barely made enough money to buy more meat; thankfully there was no rent to pay.
One afternoon Hori got more customers than he could seat. Someone in The Statesman had written about his momos in an article titled ‘Calcutta’s Hidden Delights’.
There were no pictures except one of the sign outside and another of a plate of steaming fried pork momos and a bowl of soup. You could tell they were pork momos because they were shaped differently. The braided edges packed in the meat and juices better, pork was a fatty meat, it needed better packing not to break while being cooked. No one liked broken momos, you could not serve them to customers.
Hori fed 50 customers that day, he still had an hour to go to close the shop. He didn’t care.
Hori took a copy of the paper home to show his mother. He would later cut the article out and send one of the boys from the shop to get it framed. The boys who worked for Hori came from Tangra, they told him it would be cheaper to get it framed there.
Hori rode the 47/1 home that night, like every night and every morning. He got off at the tram depot instead of his usual stop and bought some flowers for his mother. He then walked to the market and bought vegetables. The newspaper was rolled and tucked neatly under his armpit.
Hori walked the long way home past the cemetery, the high walls of the golf club, and crossed by the rickshawallahs playing cards and smoking biris near the pond, to reach home.
His mother was lying on the bed. The five rooms had been reduced to three, thanks to the rains. One morning, a few years before Hori’s father died, the family was woken up by the top two floors caving in. No one was upstairs, so no one died. The hovel next door wasn’t so lucky. Three people had died there, the cat managed to escape.
Hori’s father had just enough money to clear the debris and mend the house. Hori slept in the bigger room outside, on the sofa, huddled next to the tiny TV. His parents took the bedroom next to the kitchen.
Hori was pretty certain that his father had spent all his money to make the house liveable and relatively death-free. He started drinking more after that, honestly, which made little sense to Hori. There wasn’t enough money for daily Old Monk, he had calculated. But he never had it in him to have a conversation with father. He was only seventeen.
Then father died and mother moved to the bigger room, leaving the bedroom to Hori. She had hoped that he would get married and have children. Hori didn’t see a point. He had no secrets to pass on, and no money.
That night, the fish and rice Hori’s mother had cooked was on the table. Hori brought out a blue and white vase he had seen his grandmother use for the flowers. He went and sat next to his mother on the bed and started reading the article out slowly.
She would not understand it if he read it too fast and his English was broken at best.
After he finished, all he heard was a jagged sigh. He looked at mother and that was when she told him about Henry. Mother’s liver had been failing for years now. It was finally done. Hori went back to work the next day, and took only Sunday off for the funeral. Only the boys from his shop attended. They fed more than 100 people on Monday.
Things would have gone on, like clockwork. More than enough customers, an empty house, no more fish curry. Hori was absolutely fine, bored mostly. That was until Mr Ghoshal’s 27-year-old son came tearing downstairs on a Saturday morning. Hori had bought the ground floor off the Ghoshals, they lived on the floor just above his.
The Ghoshals and Hori had barely ever spoken, there was no need to. Hori sent them a plate of chicken momos and soup every Sunday afternoon. Now, senior Ghoshal had also died the same night as Hori’s mother. The top floor was now the son’s. And he wanted Hori to leave so as he could sell the house to a builder. Legally, he could not do a thing. He could have tried to convince Hori politely, but, well, he tried to make it about pork being “the wrong kind of meat”.
Hori sat there pouring over accounts while the son yelled. He then quietly asked one of the boys to get Ghoshal’s son some momos and soup. Hori went to the kitchen to make sure it was all perfect. After all, he did not want to give up his red chairs and old calendars.
The son ate three plates of momos and soup and went home. Hori sent his boys home, closed the shop, cleaned up, took the 47/1 and went home.
The next morning, he made a stop at the cemetery to tend to his mother’s grave.
Ghoshal’s son never bothered Hori again. In fact, Hori never saw the boy again. A few days later, some policemen turned up to check on the house. They stopped to talk to Hori – the son was missing. They asked him when he had last seen the boy. Hori sat them down and told them about the argument and the momos he had eaten. The policemen left full-tummied.
A few months later, one of the Marwari brothers went missing. His shop was locked from inside, nothing was amiss. The other two brothers were questioned thoroughly by the police, a very shaken Hori, too. The brother had come complaining to Hori the night before about one of his boys who had gotten too drunk and pissed outside the shop – “Fucking chinkies! Go back to your land!”
Hori sat by his mother’s grave the next morning, planting white chrysanthemum buds, “Where did they go, mother?”
The two other brothers disappeared one after the other, a month apart. The shops were sold off by their children. They even asked Hori if he wanted to buy the spaces, but Hori said he didn’t have enough money. It was true, he didn’t.
The children seemed far too keen to leave the city and move to London instead. They had relatives from Delhi in Southall. They left the shops in Hori’s care until they could find buyers, after all they had eaten more than enough momos at his shop through school and college.
Hori could now expand operations all the way to the main road, if he wanted. He made a neon signboard instead with a bigger arrow pointing the way in to the gully. He put some Christmas-lights up along the mossy wall and brought new chairs.
He didn’t need much. Old Uncle had told him on another drunken night that his father, Henry, believed in a simple formula for a happy life. Two formulas actually, but Hori already knew the first.
“You need just enough to be happy. If you are alive, with food in your belly, you probably already have enough.”
Hori had got that inscribed on his mother’s grave – a part of it – “You need just enough to be happy.” He made a new headstone for his grandmother with the same inscription. He went to the Park Street cemetery and ordered a new one for his great-grandmother’s grave. This one read – “You need just enough to be happy – Henry”.
He made sure all the graves had flowers planted around them, fresh flowers that got fresh manure every few months. Hori planted them himself, across three graves in two cemeteries.
Old Uncle had told Hori about bone meal while talking about his secret ingredient in the momos. Hori was surprised he remembered so much, he had been just six at the time.
As he patted down on the soil by his mother’s grave, he whispered to the flowers – “The secret is in the bones.”
Read our editorial reflections on the 2019 short story competition.