Fern Road: A Novel
Nominated | Book Awards 2020 | Creative Writing in English (Fiction & Poetry)
Fern Road: A Novel
In Orko’s world, things aren’t what they seem—a rusty old car is willed into existence by an absent-minded conjurer; on a sunny afternoon, the Titanic sinks in the waters of the Dhakuria Lake; when he swims, he becomes a baby whale; with his best friend Urmi he transforms into runaway princess or guardian fairy. When he was little, Orko thought that he was going to grow up to be exactly like his mother. After she disappears, Orko struggles with the realisation that he is a boy, and boys grow up to be men. His father signs him up for football camp, and it is there that things begin to go horribly wrong… Set in 1980s’ Calcutta, Fern Road portrays with quiet sensitivity a beautiful young boy’s journey through conflict, confusion, and self-acceptance.
Angshu Dasgupta lives in Kolkata with his spouse and two daughters. He is a computer programmer by profession. This is his first work of fiction
Gariahat literally means “the market of Garia”. Tens of thousands of people shop here every day, for vegetables, fish, fruits, mutton, stationery, tea, underwear. The footpaths that lead to the market are lined with shops that sell books and toys, sweetmeats and shoes and kitchen utensils. There are jeweller’s shops, where quiet old men sit behind iron bars with their magnifying glasses and their tiny scales, and there are hole-in-the-wall shops that repair broken food processors and wristwatches. At the junction is a megastore that sells television sets, refrigerators, stereo systems, toasters and ovens.
The most abundant, though, are the shops that sell clothing, costume jewellery and cosmetics. They do a brisk business all year round, but in the festive season they go into overdrive. There are throngs of people on the footpaths – women, mostly, walking at a leisurely pace. The shopkeepers vie for their attention.
“Mashima!” they call out to the older, matronly women. Orko’s mother would probably qualify as boudi. Girls Orko’s age, or a little older, are didimoni. In this sea of humanity, Orko is less than human. No one calls out to him. No one ever tries to sell him anything. They hurry him along if he stops in his tracks.
He dawdles by a newsstand, carelessly thumbing through a sports weekly. Across the footpath, perched precariously on the curb, is a shanty, fashioned out of salvaged asbestos siding and discarded packing crates. The makeshift counter is covered by a blue tarpaulin. Spread out on the counter are cardboard boxes containing lipstick, eyeliner, hairclips and bottles of nail polish.
Above the counter, strung out on lengths of twine, are earrings. They’re mounted, like a lepidopterist’s butterflies, on white cardboard squares about half the size of a business card. There are simple studs, gold and silver, set with rubies and emeralds and topaz. Some are elaborate, shaped like tiny chandeliers, designed to dangle tantalisingly by the jawbone. The ones Orko likes best are the long, simple earrings, made of wooden beads dyed crimson and ochre and green.
A few weeks ago, Orko and Urmi had stopped at this stall on their way home. They had a tutorial after school, so Urmi couldn’t take the school bus. They left school together, Urmi and Orko. He wanted to take Fern Road, but she insisted they come this way.
As they passed the shanty, the man in charge called out to Urmi. “Didimoni! Here! Two pairs, for just thirty rupees!”
Urmi bought a pair fashioned out of colourful beads, and another, made from oxidised metal, with tiny dragonflies dangling at the tips. Orko was breathless. Memories rushed in, like a gust of wind before a rainstorm. The bustle of Gariahat faded away, and they were seven years old again. Urmi had just had her ears pierced, and she wore a pair of gold earrings that were just large enough to go around the bottom of her earlobe and back again to the perforation.
“Can I have earrings like Urmi’s?” Orko remembers asking his mother.
“Earrings? But you’re a boy, and boys don’t wear earrings,” his mother said.
“I’m not a boy,” he said. That was the first time he remembers saying it.
“Of course you’re a boy,” his mother replied.
“Please?” he persisted. “I just want one pair, like Urmi’s.”
“You should make friends with other boys,” his mother said to him. “Playing with Urmi all the time isn’t doing you any good. Let me see if I can get you into that football camp during the summer holidays.”
Orko let the matter go, because he didn’t want to play football. He thought it was silly, kicking a ball from one end of the field to the other. It wasn’t fair. Urmi didn’t have to play football.
That night, he prayed to Ma Lokkhi, to turn him into a girl, just like Urmi. As he fell asleep, he imagined the two of them playing in her room. He was wearing a frock that belonged to him, and earrings just like hers. He was going to need a new name. Maybe his mother could help him with that.
When he awoke the next morning, he ran his fingers through his hair, even before he was fully awake. He was disappointed when it felt familiar: short, rough, bristly near the back of his neck. He felt his earlobes, but there were no holes. He ran to the mirror, and was heartbroken. Ma Lokkhi hadn’t granted his wish. He wondered if it was because everyone thought he was a boy; if Ma Lokkhi turned him into a girl, she would then have to secretly meddle with other people’s memories.
That was when he began to fear that he was stuck being a boy. He wasn’t going to grow up and be like his mother. He was never going to wear a dress, or a saree. He would never have earrings. The despair he felt was tinged with envy, and that envy has remained with him, rearing its ugly head when he least expects it. Sometimes it’s bigger than him, and it wraps itself around him until he can’t breathe. It even has a colour, and it isn’t green; it’s burnt sienna.
‘Fern Road unfolds with the deceptive languor of a summer afternoon which carries within it the ominous hush of a gathering storm. Observed with keen empathy and rich in atmospheric detail, it’s a coming-of-age story with a difference, as a young boy learns what it means to not fit into the world around him.’
—Sandip Roy, author of Don’t Let Him Know
The narrative effortlessly deals with the question of gender roles and behaviour, peer pressure, religion, class as well as the nature of truth and reality. What is more, the author achieves this by saying very little, and relying more on the observations of his protagonist, making this a promising debut in fiction.