Since childhood, Subhash has been a cautious, quiet boy. He enjoys planting dahlias, observing insects, and helping his mother, Bijoli, cook. His relatives believe “he lives in his own world,” and yet he is always in plain sight; Udayan, on the other hand, is always disappearing, playing games in which he hides and then jumps out to surprise his family members. As the boys have grown older, Udayan has shown himself to be brave and “blind to self-constraints,” approaching Bengali cinema stars on visits to Technicians’ Studio, the local film lot, while Subhash is always trying to “minimize his existence.” Despite their differences, the boys look and sound so alike that they are perpetually confused for one another; they even answer to each other’s names.
This new chapter deepens the examination of the relationship between Subhash and Udayan as it focuses not only on how they treat one another but on how they are perceived by the outside world. They seem so similar in appearance that they themselves have internalized their interchangeability in the eyes of others, yet a few very important differences mark them. Subhash is always present, but emotionally absent; Udayan is always absent, running away and getting into trouble, but is such a forceful, commanding presence that even when he’s gone it’s not really noted.
Subhash is insecure about his quiet, passive disposition; his brother, despite his unruly nature, is always able to “surprise [and] impress” their parents, family members, and even strangers. For example, when the family’s courtyard had been paved and the boys had been told to stay off the fresh cement for twenty-four hours, Udayan had broken the rules and run through the wet pavement, leaving his footprints behind. Rather than grow angry with him, their parents chose to leave the prints there. Udayan’s “imperfection became a mark of distinction about their home,” and the first thing that all visitors notice.
This scene introduces the symbol of Udayan’s footprints in the courtyard of the Mitra home. The footprints will come to symbolize Udayan’s intrepid nature, and the marks he leaves behind on the places he visits. Subhash, though older, feels he is always following in his brother’s footsteps—not just emotionally, but literally as well, as the footprints Udayan left behind in the courtyard exist as a testament to his singularity and leadership.
In their classes, Subhash and Udayan learn that Tollygunge was built on reclaimed land. It was once a dense swamp, which the English—led by Major William Tolly—cleared and began to inhabit in the 1770s. A “displaced dynasty” of Muslim rule has soaked into the bones of the town, and though Partition has made Muslims a minority in Calcutta, the streets of Tollygunge retain Islamic names.
Lahiri wants her readers to understand that Subhash and Udayan are coming of age in a place forever altered by politically and personally motivated violence—a West Bengal state profoundly changed by the effects of the violent Partition of India.
Udayan becomes obsessed with circuitry and electronics, and installs a buzzer at the front door of the house. He and Subhash learn Morse code, and take turns sending each other messages through the buzzer. They pretend to be “soldiers or spies” and play games centering around covert communication.
Udayan and Subhash play games centering around secrets and conspiracies, and toy with concepts of presence and absence, hiding and finding one another.
The boys grow older and are admitted to two of the city’s best colleges: Udayan to Presidency to study physics, and Subhash to Jadavpur to study chemical engineering. They are the only students from their high school to have achieved such honors, and the first members of their family to pursue degrees. Their proud parents allow them to choose a gift to celebrate. Subhash wants a marble chess set, but Udayan wants a shortwave radio—and Udayan gets his way. The boys use the radio to listen to news from around the world. It is 1964, and the reports they hear tell of the war in Vietnam and conflicts in Brazil. Distressing, too, are the reports from Calcutta itself: riots between Muslims and Hindus claim hundreds of lives, and Indian communists form a breakaway political group sympathetic to China: the Communist Party of India, Marxist, or the CPI(M).
As the boys grow older, they begin to move in separate directions for the first time in their lives. In spite of the fact that they have both achieved something special, it is again Udayan who takes the lead in deciding what their gift should be. The shortwave radio opens the boys up to what is happening in their hometown a little more—the violence they hear about on the radio foreshadows the intense and volatile political climate slowly beginning to take over Calcutta.