The Man Who Wore a Hat by Susmita Srivastava

Was this the way it was? Who knows any longer, after so many years, and so many bicycles, and cars have been down the road, it’s no longer possible to remember how bits of existence behaved then, or whether the road was or wasn’t. Or perhaps one remembers but what one remembers may or may not have been.


Definitely, as you turned down Bank Road, coming from noisy Katra bazaar, you noticed the change. The Amaltas lining the road was heavy with bloom like bunches of huge yellow grapes. If you bit into one, the sunlight would run out over your fingers like sticky golden juice and your hand would be luminous for a while. And if you looked directly at one for too long, you’d go a little crazy with the beauty of it. Lanes snaked off, left into cul-de-sacs and right to shortcuts to the University, through a bamboo grove and over a ditch, emerging just behind the History or the Music department. And if you walked right down to the end of the road, where the cantonment began, there was Yasmin’s house in the corner, with the litchi bushes and the old well, and her father in his rocking chair, reading , and her mother making sweet and sour lime pickles.


One of the characters who lived on Bank Road was Rituraj P. Sinha, a man of many-splendoured strangeness. Not that you could put a finger on all the things that were odd about him, for he carried his difference like an aura, colourful and intangible. But there was one thing that you could pin down, an oddity you could satisfyingly note and write down if you wished, and that was his hat. It was dark brown and made of some stiff velvety material, a good looking hat with a fair-sized rim. Probably expensive, though already old when I first saw it. Nobody in Allahabad possessed a hat, or would dream of wearing it if they did. It wasn’t as if his other clothes were particularly well cut or stylish. No, Rituraj P. Sinha usually wore rather shabby corduroys and comfortable cotton shirts. It wasn’t as if he taught English Literature at the University, either, and had contracted his passion for a hat from a book. He taught Medieval Indian History.


Moreover, as he walked down the shady avenue that led from the bicycle stand to the History Department, you could see the spirit of disappearance dogging his steps. Swirls of dust eddied from his heels, and every now and then some would wink out of existence. It was as if he could never muster up enough force of mind or involvement to ensure the continuation of his surroundings. Furniture, for example, or furnishings. He was always losing small things like stools and cushions, and occasionally a chair or table. Sometimes he really missed them later, like the carved wooden bookends in the shape of sharks that he’d found in Chandni Chowk. He thought about them every day for a month when they were new, and then it was once a week, and then a very long time went by and they turned a little transparent. The fins went first, without his noticing, and then the tails and then they flickered out altogether and his books fell off the table. He felt bad about those, but nothing ever came back.


Yasmin, now, she was in her early twenties around that time, pleasant and perfectly ordinary, with her brown eyes and dark hair, just like anyone else’s. Some of us often went to her house; her mother was generous with the pickles. The walls were hung with framed roses, embroidered, heavy with secrets, half closed with hints of night. They were maroon or deep purple silk on cloth the colour of old paper, a tiny Yasmin worked into the lower right corner.


At the age of thirty-three, Rituraj ran into Yasmin. Literally, because she was picking up a book and he wasn’t watching where he was going. He was prompted to think about the Amaltas in metre.

       As the sunshine filters through the filigree of leaf

       Golden-green and fertile on the seeker’s dark footprint

       So do you, dark-haired woman, shed a shadow on my mind.

He should have been warned, of course, because there was no reason for a sunshine woman to shed a shadow. Or maybe sunshine is the very thing that does.


Anyway, he didn’t consider this question at all. He focussed, instead, on trivia such as her fondness for ice cream and Yeats, being a literature student, and her predilection for little white houses set in gardens with palm trees. Also on her thumbnails, which had light half-moons. It happens, doesn’t it, all the time and everywhere. Feels good, she said, wiping raindrops from the corner of her mouth.


They found a single-storied, rain-stained white house near the Ganga, but the trees were neem and jamun and mango. No palms. This, remember, is Allahabad. The hibiscus, though, was laden with frilly red flowers, and they never trimmed the henna.


It seemed for a while that the presence of Yasmin had altered things for Rituraj. His smoky focus solidified, and settled into her, and her ordinariness imbued his household with cohesion. But it’s hard for people to change, even if they are in love, and gradually Rituraj forgot about the pressure cooker. He came home one afternoon to find Yasmin crying hysterically in the kitchen and dal all over the stove. ‘It’s alright, it’s okay, it’s my fault, really.’


‘It was there, it was there!’


He found it hard to explain, and she wouldn’t believe him initially, but after some of the glasses went and then the pyramids her uncle had brought back for them blinked out right in front of her eyes, she had to accept the way things were. She fought back though, for a while. She went home to her mother and brought back her basket of dark silks and bits of cloth. Every time she sensed Rituraj’s edges fray, she focussed on her household and embroidered with a kind of frenzy, attempting to build a bulwark. It even worked for a while. A lamp in the living room started losing colour, but Yasmin worked it into a dark blue rose, and it stayed.


The first day of the monsoons the following year, it rained till the neem was soaked like a sponge, and you could squeeze a bunch of leaves into a hastily made canal and sail a boat Rituraj put on his hat and went out into the downpour, allowing the water to run in rivulets down his chin and into his waiting palms. Yasmin stayed home, deep in dread, knowing her husband should have stayed with her and knowing also that he wouldn’t. She got herself a bowl of ice cream and cowered.


The rain got into Yasmin and her toes were the first to dissolve. Then the palm trees in her mind went, painfully, and, bit by bit, her fingers, her thighs, her left eyelashes. Her hair was still untouched when Rituraj came back.


I remember her, I do, I do, he screamed, but it was too late. Mourning, he took a knife and cut off her route to the rest of the ice cream in the freezer and let her go.


I saw him again, opening the gate of the little yellow house on Bank Road, adjusting his hat and putting black bicycle clips on his faded corduroys. I wanted to know how he felt, letting her go, and the hibiscus. But I didn’t know the right questions to ask.


‘Why do you wear that hat?’


‘I like it,’ he said. ‘It’s like a furry brown monkey.’



Susmita Srivastava now lives in Jaipur with her husband and three daughters, but was born and brought up in Allahabad. In addition to fiction, she writes poetry, some of which has appeared in Muse India.