BASS 2017 & Pushcart XLII: Jai Chakrabarti, “A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness” from A Public Space #24

Thursdays because it was on a Thursday that they had met three years ago, that time of year when the city is at its most bearable, when the smell of wild hyacinth cannot be outdone by the stench of the gutters, because it is after the city’s short winter, which manages, despite its brevity, to birth more funerals than any other time of year. In the city’s spring, two men walking the long road from Santiniketan back to Kolkata — because the bus has broken and no one is interested in its repair — are not entirely oblivious to the smells abounding in the wildflower fields, not oblivious at all to their own smells.

Complete story available online at Lithub

Where and under what conditions I read a story often factors in to my understanding and enjoyment of it. I started this one on a city bus, continued it waiting for another bus, and finished it up once I got home. I realized that was sloppy reading and invited sloppy comments, so I re-read it, and sure enough, I’d missed that the story takes place in 1979 or so. I’m not familiar enough with contemporary India to how much difference that makes, but everywhere, there are still places that are dangerous for gay couples.

It’s a rich boy – poor boy romance carried out in once-a-week visits every Thursday. The ping that sets things in motion is Nikhil’s desire to have a baby. Sharma has a wife of sorts, Tripti – friends without benefits – as protection, and Nikhil’s idea is to use her as the incubator. I use that language deliberately, because it’s more or less how he seems to see it. Sex with a woman would be somewhat unpleasant but “a small sacrifice for an enormous happiness.”

The problem is, Nikhil is in love, and that means he’s tone-deaf. Or maybe he’s just naturally tone-deaf; throughout there are many signs that he’s not particularly empathetic. He’s condescending as hell to Tripti, and a bit offended when she doesn’t show the expected deference. Interesting how someone ready to challenge norms only wants to challenge the ones that constrain him. I’m not convinced Sharma’s hands are 100% pure, either; I suspect love has nothing to do with it, as far as he’s concerned.

Much of the story is highly sensual; nothing more explicit is needed. I saw some moments as humorous, such as: Nikhil shows up at the foundry where Sharma works to show him baby clothes, and Sharma tries to keep up a pretense that he’s a customer complaining about a late order. It’s a nice read.

The story is driven to its climax when Nikhil visits Tripti to work out the plan with her, but she’s not buying it. He waits at the train station to catch a glimpse of Sharma coming home from work:

He saw Sharma as the crowd was thinning out. He was walking with someone dressed in the atrocious nylon pants that were the fashion, and perhaps they were telling jokes, because Sharma was doubled over laughing. In all their evenings together, he couldn’t recall seeing Sharma laugh with so little inhibition as now, so little concern about who would hear that joyous voice — who would think, What are those two doing? He watched Sharma walk along the dirt road toward his house, but it was an entirely different progress; he was stopping to inspect the rows of wildflowers on the path, to chat up the farmer who’d bellowed his name.
He kept watching Sharma’s retreating form until he could see nothing but the faint shape of a man crossing the road.

In his Contributor Note, Chakrabarti writes of his grandparent’s house in Kolkota: “I can sense the stories that these old walls must have seen… I imagine Nikhil’s perilous journey, up those steps and into the humid air that feels at once constricting and full of possibility.” Yet it was these two outdoor scenes quoted here that stayed with me the longest, due to their parallelism, and the message that seemed crystal-clear to me but stayed submerged in Nikhil’s subconscious as he snatched back his gift. That’s the teaser of the story for me: who’s the bad guy, who’s the victim – if anyone is either?

One response to “BASS 2017 & Pushcart XLII: Jai Chakrabarti, “A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness” from A Public Space #24

  1. I’m going to start with a small critique, but that’s only so I can make a larger point about why I liked the story. There are occasional instances in the story of words that maybe don’t need to be there. In middle school, we all learned not to keep repeating words, so if you have to name something twice, the second time, you should use a synonym. “The bishop look grave. I watched the old shepherd of the flock pick his ear.” I feel like as a professional, sometimes this kind of thing can give away the artifice of the story. It’s like seeing the painter’s fingerprints.

    An example is this: “He allowed Sharma to have his fill, watching with satisfaction as his fingers became honey-glazed from the offering.” “The offering” is the food Nikhil just piled up. But the author wants to avoid naming the food again, so he talks of “the offering,” which seems a little weird. Why not just “his fingers became honey-glazed,” and the reader figures out what it’s from?

    I only say this in order to make the point that I am willing to forgive small stuff in a story if I feel the overall narrative is coming from the heart, rather than just a paint-by-numbers thing from an established writer. This story seemed “felt” to use the word I said was lacking in the last two stories. I draw what is perhaps a strange analogy here, comparing the story to Moby Dick. Nikhil seems, like Ahab, to seek his own downfall by wanting what the world will not give him. I’ve just been reading Meeker’s Comedy of Survival with my son; this story fits that kind of a reading nicely.

    I have to admit, I thought the story was in Pakistan, because someone is speaking Urdu in it. I had to look up Kolkota afterwards to know where the story was. It’s the whole other side of India from Pakistan. I was kind of wondering how anyone living in Pakistan had hope that the world was changing enough to tolerate a gay couple raising a baby in semi-openness.

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