STORIES by Manorama Mathai
A GIRL’S STORY
The story I am about to tell you is the story of a girl. I am no longer that girl, but it is my story. I am now a woman, no longer young, although I do not know exactly how old I am. Does that matter? You see, a woman’s age is of little importance here in my village, nobody writes down the exact date of one’s birth, not that of a girl child any way, one of many in a family. It is a fact of no significance, unless one gets born on some important festival day or at a time of great calamity. Then people remember. I sometimes think what a waste it all is; after all, what
can happen to a woman? She will grow up and get married and the gods willing, will have children and then she will grow old and die. And all the gaps in between will be filled with work. I worked as a girl, I work as a woman. I collected water and fuel and fodder for our animals when I was a girl and then I worked in the rice fields and according to the seasons, with the wheat, the maize and the chilis. I cook the dal bhaat tarkari and the meat when there is some. I do the puja all the year round and fast for my husband’s life at least once a year. I plait the green chilis to hang from the eaves to dry to ripe redness. We also dry the maize cobs to be ground into flour for roti, even the pumpkins and the cauliflower leaves are dried for later use when the earth is hard and cold and little grows.
Until I was ten or eleven (I told you, I am not very exact about age) I lived in Kathmandu with my father. Kathmandu is a very long way from my village which is perched high up in the mountains, far away from any town, several miles walking. Here we do no count in miles but in days and we know a place is very far away when it takes more than two or three days to walk there. Kilometres or what we call kos mean nothing to me, they tell me nothing about distances.
My father had a good job in Kathmandu, our capital city. I remember the place so well and long to see it again, but I know I never will. Kathmandu is many walking days away and who would look after the house, the children and the kheti if I walked off to Kathmandu? We women cannot do whatever pleases us as men do. But that does not mean that I do not want to go back there. I would love to see again the temples in Hanuman Dhoka, do puja to Ganesh at Indrachowk, see the giant chariot of Lord Macchendranath roll along Patan’s lanes and look in to the shops on New Road, so full of lovely things.
We have a small temple here in my village but there are no crowded bustling streets, no shops, except for one where we buy a few necessities. My mother stayed behind in a village just like this one with the rest of the children. I do not know why I was the one to go to the city with my father. I never asked why, I was just happy to be there with him. He was a kind man, my father, and he loved me even though I was only a daughter. He put me in school in Kathmandu and every day he took me there before he went off to his office where I think he worked as a clerk. Always, before we left the house in the morning, we ate dal bhaat which I cooked and I would pack a little chiura or some other snack for him to slip in his pocket and eat later in the day.
I liked school. It was fun when we all shouted out our lessons, each one trying to outdo the other. I was good at writing and reading and sums, I could do really hard ones in my head. My father was proud of me and often said that one day I might become an `affiser’ like the ones in his office. I suppose he was only joking, but I have seen women `affisers’ in Kathmandu and smart looking girls all dressed in their uniform saris going to college. In those days I thought I would surely join them when I was older.
One day I returned from school as usual. I had brought home a lot of homework to do in the evening and that too, was as usual. I made chiya for my father, prepared his hookah and busied myself with the evening meal so that, as soon as that was finished, I could sit down to my school work.
My father, I remember, was very quiet all that evening but at first I did not think anything of it as I had my chores to attend to. But then when he sat down to the meal he sighed often and did not eat as heartily as he usually did. Sometimes he was in the habit of teasing me by saying the dal was burnt and then, just as I would start to look worried and poke the dekchi with my long handled spoon to show him he was wrong, he would smile and say no one cooked dal the way I did: “dherai mitho cha, chori” and that means, you know don’t you, `the dal is very tasty, daughter.’
But that day, I remember, he was silent. There was no joking, no questions about school, no stories of the office. At last even I, my tasks finished, noticed that something was very wrong.
“Bua, what is the matter? Is something wrong? I hope you are not angry with me,” I asked.
“Chori, you have done nothing wrong. You are a good girl”, he replied. I noticed that he did not look at me as he spoke, his eyes sliding away from mine, his hands busy with nothing.
“What is the matter then, Ba? I know something is wrong.”
“Chori, your mother is not well. I have received a message. They say she is very sick and we must start for home at once.” As he spoke, my father fidgeted and looked uneasy.
“Amma is not well?” I asked, but although I looked serious and worried, I have to tell you the truth. I did not want to go home, as my father called it. My home was there in that little house we had above the shops in Dilli Bazaar. I had not seen my mother for about two years and if I ever had missed her, I did not miss her then. My mother is not kind and gentle like my father. I suppose, now that I think about it, she had a hard life up there in that village. Every year she had a baby and only did not if my father did not visit her. She ran the house, looked after the animals and the land and saved the money Bua sent her, hiding it in a hole in the floor under her sleeping mat. I had three younger sisters at home, which meant my mother had produced four girls in a row and no one should be as unlucky as that. Luckily, she then had three boys, one after another, the youngest born soon after our last visit to the village. Six children to look after and that does not include the babies that died, I do not know how many.
Anyway, I was sorry my mother was ill but I did not want to leave Kathmandu to go and see her. I suppose, though I was young, I dimly realized that if anything happened to my mother I would have to stay in the village and take care of my brothers and sisters and how to do that and continue my happy life in Kathmandu? I was selfish then, as a child can be, and I thought only of myself. I was realistic about the possibility that my mother might die, for death is no stranger in our valley. Lord Yama makes frequent visits and like a farmer in his fields, he plucks up lives as they do weeds. Children and women die all the time, either being born or giving birth, or in a hundred different ways that the god of death devises for us mortals. So I never thought that my mother could not die. I knew she could and probably would; she must, I thought, be dying since my father looked so solemn and sad and since she had sent for him. So I did not argue with my father as he made arrangements for us to leave early the next morning before the sun arose. In any case, what could I say? That I did not wish to see my mother, did not want to go back to our village, did not want to care for my sisters and brothers? It was impossible and anyway, it was not my habit to argue with my father.
Instead, I turned to my favourite god. No, not Krishna, blue faced, playing his flute and making all the milkmaids fall in love with him. No, it was to Ganesh I went that evening. He, you know, is everybody’s favourite. Ganesh likes to do things for people, that is what we believe, and for the success of any important undertaking it is to him, elephant headed one, he of the fat belly, that we turn. His father, Siva, did not treat him well, knocking off his head simply because poor Ganesh did not recognize him and barred his way. Then, feeling sorry for what he had done, even the gods can be hasty and make mistakes, he took the head of an elephant and placed it on his son’s shoulders.
Well, I did my special puja at the shrine, jostled by all the people who were there on errands of their own, scattering the red kum-kum on him, laying trays of sweets, eggs, flowers, fruit, before him. But I only gave him a few sweets, a few paisa worth, which was all that I had, but I reckoned that with his fat stomach he must love sweets best of all (as I did then) and would
look with favour on my small offering.
The next day we set out for the village, my father and I. We walked day after weary day, taking the short-cuts across the hills that my father knew so well. Those paths are steep, I can tell you, and when city folk go climbing they put on special shoes, the women wearing trousers specially made for walking. We think it funny, women dressed like men, but we would not mind having proper shoes when we climb up and down the mountainside. Anyhow, it was hard walking and it was not cheerful either because my father was very silent, not singing filmi geet as he otherwise did, not chatting, nor offering the piggy back rides he used to give me when I was younger.
With every step we took my heart grew heavier because we were getting closer, I thought, to my mother’s death and to the end of my girlhood..although, of course, I did not think of it quite like that then. It seemed to me as we climbed higher each day, leaving the valley behind us in the haze, as the snow peaks of Ganesh Himal reared their five heads above the blue hills, that we were like the ants described by our Nepali poet, whose name I can no longer recall, as “running helter skelter through a garden, their bodies tiny, their thirst tremendous.”
The mountains have that effect as you approach them and they grow grand and huge, of making you feel as unimportant as an ant. I suppose that is why such thoughts came to me. You have heard, have you not, of our poet Devkota? He wrote: “I was born, I grew strong in this heaven. In the end I am ash and vanish,/ Like nothing I go into nothingness.” I do not know why I am reminded of that, but somehow I have always liked that poem.
Well, to cut a long story short, I know you do not have all day to sit and listen to my ramblings, we climbed up and up, sought baas or shelter for the night in tea houses or on people’s verandahs and eventually, footsore and weary, we arrived home.As we climbed the terraces outside our house and the house itself came into view, I was surprised by what I saw. The house had been newly painted and decorated. Fresh strings of leaves hung across the doorway and the ochre and white walls were bright and clean. People were sitting on the verandah looking cheerful and happy. This was certainly no funeral, nor was it the house of one mortally ill. I looked at my father, but he lengthened his stride and went resolutely forward, not giving me so much as a glance either of surprise or commiseration.
For a moment I just stood there, taking in the familiar green of potato plants and mustard leaf, the pumpkins ranged on top of the house, the vivid scarlet of chilis hanging in ripe cascades, the blue of the sky and the sheen of the snow on the peaks beyond. I had come home and yet all I wanted to do was to turn and run down that steep hillside, back along all that painful distance, back to the familiar life in Kathmandu, to the sound of traffic, the hooting of buses, the call of the many vendors, anything to fill up the silence of this place.
As I stood there unmoving, I watched my father reach the house where he was greeted by the people on the verandah. To my astonishment I saw my mother come out of the darkness of the house into the sunlight outside and in that clear light I could see that she was neither ill nor dying. With a loud cry, I bounded up those terraces and instead of falling at my mother’s feet as I should have done, I shouted: “You are not ill, you are not dying, why did you send for us?” Well, I was only a young girl then, I did not know how to guard my tongue.
My mother gave me a push which had the effect of making me fall at her feet as a dutiful child should and when she raised me up her hands were not gentle or affectionate. She gave me a pat on my cheek which felt more like a slap to me and she said and her tone was sharp: “I see you have come back only just in time. You have become spoilt in the city. Living too long in Nepal (that is what villagers call Kathmandu) is not good for a village girl.” Once again my eyes sought my father’s face, but he had turned away and was talking to the men. My mother’s hand was hard on my arm as she led me indoors. My little sisters ran up to me. “There is going to be a wedding, didi”, they babbled excitedly, “it is to be tomorrow”.
“Wash yourself”, said my mother, “and then we will eat. After that you must rest for you have a long day before you tomorrow.”
Being young and very tired, I ate well and then slept peacefully all night. But I was uneasy. I knew that something was taking place. I cannot really explain to you what followed. To this day, it remains a jumble in my mind and as the years pass, God alone knows how many other things have become less clear. All I know is that the following day they took me to the next village, across and around the hill that separated us. When we reached the place there were many ceremonies. My father left me there in a strange house and before he left, as I clung to him weeping, he said: “I will come back for you, child. Be a good girl and wait for me here.”
I sat outside the house all dressed up in my red sari, waiting and crying, until finally I cried myself to sleep leaning against a wall. When I awoke someone had picked me up and laid me on a mat inside the house. The next day, they put potay, the marriage beads, around my neck and they placed the vermilion powder in the parting of my hair and they said: “You are married now and this is your home and we are your family.” And I wept again then as I have never done before and certainly have not since, not even when two of my children died. And this is where I have been ever since. They tricked me, my mother and father, my father led me up those hills as he might have led a goat that is destined for the slaughter and he left me there in a strange house and went away.
I still like poetry and so, if you have a little time left, listen to this: “Purses of gold are like dirt on your hands/ What can be done with wealth?/ It is better to eat spinach and nettles/ With happiness in your heart!”
I do not agree with that part about gold, of course, no sensible woman would (that poem was written by a man), but happiness, yes indeed, that is of importance. Sometimes I still dream of Kathmandu and the girl who was so carefree, but most of the time I have no time to sit and think.
But this I must tell you; I have a daughter and I will not marry her off as I was married. I will never allow her to be tricked as I was. That is all I can say. This is my story, but it will not be my girl’s story.
A STRAY CAT
“I should not have done what I did. It was wrong and I am being punished for it, may Phra Phut forgive me.”
She was a young woman, little more than a girl really, and she had been sentenced to 25 years in prison. Her name was Maiow, a strangely fitting name, although this was no well fed, purring tabby; this was one of those slinking grey cats, thin and reedy voiced, all bones, the eyes enormous in a pinched face.
What had this little stray cat done to bring upon herself the wrath of righteous society? Her crime, it seemed, was heinous enough: she had killed a tiny baby and that baby her own.
“God forgive me,” she murmured, “I acted in desperation with a heart that was hot and hasty.”
“Did you not love your baby?” we asked in horror, “did you not want your own child?”
Maiow looked at us through the bars of her prison and shook her head.
“It was not like that”, she said in her thin, soft voice that seemed like a plaintive mew.
“What about your husband or your `fan’?” we asked; all of us had husbands who kept us, who supported us and our children.
She shook her head again. “He ran away when he knew there was a
baby coming. He wanted to be a man but he did not want to be a father, only I could not run away though I would have liked to. My stomach grew and I was rooted to the spot. I never saw him again and do not know where he is.”
“What of your parents, your family?” we persisted. After all, we were in Asia where family ties are strong and family pride is great.
Yet again Maiow shook her head in weary negation. “My mother is alone. My father left her a long time ago, took a mia noi. She has no money except for what I send her and the little she earns to keep herself and four of my brothers and sisters. I am from Isaan. We are very poor in the north east, it is not like Bangkok. Here there is everything in abundance, there where I come from, there is very little to be had. I could not go back bringing yet another mouth to be fed and without money.”
Remembering, her thin feline face took on the desperate look of a cat slinking along a hostile road wondering where to snatch a morsel.
“But to kill “, we muttered, unable to understand.
“What did I have to give her?” she burst out then, seeing our incomprehension, “nothing but hunger and misery. They said she was not right in the head.”
There was a long silence while we contemplated what she had said. Maiow’s eyes were inward looking as if she too saw pictures conjured up by her words and when she spoke again it was in a dreamy voice, the voice of one who looked on and reported what was passing in front of her.
“When the baby was born they said she was not well, they said I could go home but they kept her in the hospital. I was afraid of the hospital, of the doctors and nurses there, I would not have gone back there to take her but they had my address and I knew there would be trouble if I did not go back for her. It was then that they told me, when I went back to fetch her …they said she was not normal, would not grow up like other children. They spoke of special places where children like her could be taken care of. It was like a flood of words that fell over my head and I thought I would drown in them. I could understand nothing except that the baby they put into my hands had something terribly wrong with it. Nothing in my life was good and now I had a baby that was not right. I took the baby and walked away. I did not have enough money for a tuk tuk so I got on a bus with my baby. It was full of people and we did not get a seat but my baby never cried, not even though people pushed and shoved and there was so much noise. At first I thought she is a good baby, giving no trouble, then I said to myself, they are right, she is not all right, maybe she cannot see or hear. What will become of her? In this world if you are poor you must have all your senses. You may not be clever, I am not, but you must have all your senses. That little one looked at me with eyes that seemed not to see and her ears seemed not to hear.
We got off the bus and though she was such a little thing, about the size of an Isaan chicken, I felt her grow heavy in my arms. I could not carry her, so I sat down under a tree by the side of the road and I laid her down in my lap. I did not know what to do. All around me there were people hurrying to and fro, all of them busy with places to go, things to do, the women all pretty and beautifully dressed, the men so smart and important roaring past on motor bikes and in grand cars. The shops were all full; in the windows of restaurants people sat and ate, everyone looked so happy. All around me there was happiness, noise and bustle. When I looked at the baby in my lap she was so still, so quiet, no expression on her face. She looked peaceful. Then she opened her eyes and I bent to look in them and they seemed so full of sadness as if her little soul was drowned in them. I put my hand on her throat and I pressed. I did not look at her face again, I looked around me at all the tall and wonderful buildings, at the brightly dressed people and I whispered to the baby, there is nothing here for you, you came by mistake so go back and maybe next time you will have good luck and a happy birth. We sat there like that for a long long time and then someone must have noticed us for the police came and they took me away and they took thedead baby away from me. It was later they told me that the hospital had been looking for me. They had given me the wrong baby. There was nothing wrong with the baby they gave me. She was not mine. Mine was the sick one and she is alive, the dead one, the one they gave me telling me it was mine and sick, was somebody else’s and I killed her.”
We left the prison in silence watched by Maiow who continued to look out from behind bars. She had been judged by society and found wanting, so she had been placed with thieves and murderers and drug peddlers to serve her sentence. A prisoner of cruel circumstance. We went home to our safe comfortable homes, our husbands and our children and we wondered who really was guilty.
A THIN TIME OF IT
hen I was newly wed my husband said: “I can’t abide a fat woman. Promise me you’ll never ever get fat.” Of course I promised him that; in those days I promised him anything he asked and I must say, he rarely asked anything unreasonable. And anyway, the last thing a girl of 22 wants is to be fat. I became fanatical about keeping fit and slim long before keep fit became as fashionable as it has. I exercised, I dieted, I never ever let up, never deviated for years from my size 12. I was the perfect 34,22,34.
Which was something of an achievement because fat is in my genes and perhaps my husband said what he did because of my fat mother and 3 plump sisters. When the children were born I dieted and exercised more vigorously than before and if my lower half became a size 14, my top half remained 12 and my bust size a perfect 34B. He had nothing to complain about in the figure department, everybody said so and Jasper was very proud of the way I looked. For those of you who may be wondering, when I was young feminism was only just beginning to rear its head and was known more for being way out, burning bras and hating men, than for elevating ordinary young girls like me to equality. I was a good wife; it was what I had been brought up to be. I looked after my husband, cooked tasty meals, cared for the children and the house and then made sure I always looked trim and attractive. We women had to be like that; we cooked the wonderful recipes that we saw in women’s magazines, served it attractively to our families, while we went on a grapefruit and lemon juice diet from that selfsame mag! If I ever wondered why it was only we women who worried so much about being fat, it certainly didn’t come to the front of my mind then. I remember a friend of mine said to me: “If you are fat everybody behaves as if that is the most important thing about you, nobody bothers to find out what you are really like.
Like everyone else, I accepted that women dieted and had to be thin; it followed like the night the day. Jasper continued over the years to say he couldn’t abide a woman who was over weight, that fat turned him off and he noticed any extra pound I inadvertently gained like on my birthday (all those wonderful sweets from family and friends), Christmas time (Jasper loves cake so I always made one steeped in brandy) or when we went away on holiday. When I went home to visit my mother and my sisters I must admit I felt a trifle jealous at the way they ate what they wanted and contentedly let out their dresses. My father had died a long time back so I have no way of knowing how he viewed my mother’s avoirdupois, but two of my sisters were divorced so maybe that served as a very salutary object lesson. When Jasper said something like: “Baby, you look just great” and reached for me, adding: “Thank God you’re not like the rest of your family. I’d be out of here fast if you ever did become like them,” I thought it well worthwhile that I passed up on all the goodies my mother kept putting on the table and pointing in my general direction, though I didn’t like it when she said: “There’s more to life than looking slim. Take care you don’t miss out.” Still later, one of my sisters said: “What’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander”, and another said: “Fat is a feminist issue”, but I didn’t give them the satisfaction of asking what they meant. I thought I knew; my sister Sara and I have never got on and any way, I was busy helping my husband to a second helping of my mother’s special recipe chicken Cacciatori. Of course I didn’t have any. A little bit of what you fancy, they say, but a little bit of that, heavy with cream, followed by one of mother’s famous puddings full of cream and a drop of the hard stuff and I’d have been set back for weeks. Well, I was always worried because we all know there are plenty of more attractive and younger women around every corner, that the divorce rate keeps rising rather than falling and that as one grows older it is ever more an uphill task for a woman to continue to look attractive. Only God (and several beauticians) know what Joan Collins, Jane Fonda and all the rest of that ageless bunch go through to stay the way they do, but for the average woman like me who can just about afford a trip to a beauty salon every six weeks it all gets very hectic indeed. I pored over every new diet that came out, I’ve been on them all grapefruit, water, high fibre, fruit only diets and some that I just made up like smaller and smaller portions and getting myself to sick it all up afterwards when no one was looking. And as the years passed and my metabolism slowed with it, I gave up eating breakfast and if no one was at home, skipped lunch as well. I always ate dinner because Jasper was home for that and he likes a hearty meal which he does not like to eat alone. So I gave myself small servings and moved my fork around my plate in a an aimless sort of way while Jasper happily wolfed his food saying things like “This is so good”, or “You certainly haven’t lost your touch.”
There comes that stage in most people’s marriages when the compliments (if you are lucky enough to get any) change direction. That is when you know you are an old married couple. The years were passing, the children grew up and then time accelerating, I found that the years had passed and the children were gone, had moved out to lives of their own. There was only Jasper and me left in the house. Suddenly and with a shock I realized that I was no longer young. I still felt young (inside me, not a day over 30) and my body looked young enough, but there was no denying that I was no longer young, just (in that disgusting phrase) `well preserved’. Like a pickle or something.
And as usual in such a crisis, I asked myself where the years had gone and what had I to show for it. Nothing much really, and I felt depressed. Everyone said, they thought comfortingly, that it was the empty nest syndrome and mid-life crisis. Then one night I walked into the bedroom. Jasper was already in bed as he usually is these days although it was not late. He hasn’t touched me in a very long while and I suppose I haven’t really looked at him for a fairly long time either. He had fallen asleep with the bedside lamp on and it cast a harsh light on his face. His mouth was open and he was snoring. His teeth grinned up at me from a glass beside his bed. His belly, fortified over the years by beer, hung slackly out of the bedclothes. I stood over him, a perfect size 12 and he was impervious to me as he has been over the last several years. Perhaps it is not too late for me to enjoy my life, I shall start by throwing away my diet books..
omewhere in the north of India there is a small and unremarkable town called Sultanpur. Despite its royal name, there is no wealth or grandeur to be found here. It is a dusty nondescript sort of place, with nothing about it that is beautiful. Even the neem trees that line the streets seem bowed down, dusty and bedraggled. Maybe once, long ago, a rich man (more likely a zamindar rather than a sultan) had ruled the place when all of northern India was made up of little kingdoms, fiefdoms and petty rulers. Nothing now remains of that long ago forgotten ruler; no panoply or liveried splendours, no magnificent palace. It is all uniformly dun coloured, with utilitarian buildings of the type known as municipal or PWD, thrown up as and where one found space. Shanty buildings, ramshackle, their faded peeling colours the only concession to beauty: the blue and green so favoured by the Public Works Department. Scrawny chickens scratch in the ubiquitous dust which turns to mud when the monsoon remembers to come to this far northern town. Children are plentiful and they, too, play in the dust and mud by the side of the road, along with the flea-bitten dogs, chickens and goats.
Maybe, Sultanpur is a fitting stage for Fatima who lives down just such a featureless street where are to be found, cheek by jowl, cycle repair shops, tonga horse stables, teashops and small provision stores. Fatima is Muslim, as are most of the inhabitants of Sultanpur. Her husband Rashid is a tonga driver, driving a skinny sore-lacerated horse that pulls the tonga up and down the streets of Sultanpur. Rashid does not earn much and what he has he tends to spend on drink, when of an evening he sits with his friends in a small bar and drinks the cheap locally brewed liquor which is all that he can afford. It serves its purpose which is to give a few moments of euphoria before he achieves oblivion. For Fatima, however, there is no such way out, no escape from bleakness and hardship. Fatima asked the doctor to sterilise her so that there should be no more children and this was done.
Who knows, however, what that over worked, under paid doctor did or did not do. Perhaps Fatima’s rampant fecundity defeated her efforts, or maybe her lack of skill had left open some loophole through which Fatima’s egg and Rashid’s sperm managed to come together. Fatima found herself pregnant once more.
She remained determined that she would bring no more children into this world. Her husband had a son on whom he doted while her little girls with their great solemn eyes, their resigned and docile ways, were a constant reproach to her.
Fatima took her courage in both her hands and saying not a word to anyone, she went to a doctor who conducted an abortion. Clenching her teeth on her pain and discomfort, not daring to reveal that anything was amiss with her, she continued with her many duties. She was able however, to persuade Rashid that something needed to be done to prevent the birth of more children.
“What shall we do if more girls are born? How will we get them all married and what will become of them?” she asked him.
Rashid cursed her and all females as being nothing but a nuisance. “Useless creatures!” he exclaimed as he bent over his baby boy.
Fatima bowed her head. “It is true”, she murmured, “but we already have five useless girls and only one son. Very probably only girls will be born and we do not want that.”
This was certainly true and Rashid bestirred himself to buy some condoms; and he used them, he swore on the Prophet’s beard that he did, so it was not his fault that Fatima became pregnant, was it?
Wearily, Fatima went back to the abortionist and the tiny life was scraped out of her. But once again it happened and Fatima, undaunted, determined in the only way she knew how to limit her family, had yet another abortion. On this occasion, however, she was unable to hide the consequences from her mother-in-law who had in any case become suspicious. The older woman was vociferous in her outrage. abortion was against their religion, a crime, she cried and called on her son to punish Fatima. This Rashid, who had drunk too much, did and he beat his wife almost senseless.
The five little girls huddled together, cowering in fear as they watched their mother being beaten. Their grandmother, meanwhile, cradled the little boy in her arms, cooing at him and he smiled gap-toothed at her.
Fatima nursed her injuries and wondered what she could do, where could she turn? She did not blame her husband for the beating he had given her, he too was helpless, almost as helpless as she, caught in life’s trap. She comforted her daughters, their eyes still dark with fear, the tears still wet on their cheeks.
Amina, the eldest, was bright, her teachers said, she learned very quickly. Perhaps, thought Fatima, Amina would be able to complete her schooling and help her sisters. Fatima determined to do everything in her power, outcast though she might be to her husband’s mother, beaten by her husband, to ensure that Amina should have a chance in this world. She would ask for nothing more.
When she came to work for me I did not know and did not think to ask the meaning of her name. Kuppam like most Tamils was dark skinned and she was not very good looking. She was, however, a very pleasant person with a seemingly inexhaustible good humour and a remarkable capacity for hard work. She wielded broom and duster with gusto, displacing dirt and dust with implacable hostility, leaving shining surfaces behind her. And that you might say, is all that is required of a maid of all work.
Kuppam was about eighteen years old when she came to work for me, she was not very certain of her age, saying apologetically, while she smacked my belongings with her duster and energetically swabbed the floor on her hands and knees, that in her family there were many children, most of them girls and no one had bothered much about exactly when they were born. If one’s birth coincided with some larger happening such as an earthquake or the death of a famous person, Kuppam explained to me, then there was a chance that the birthday might be remembered. This, said Kuppam with her pleasant smile, had not been the case for her, nothing had happened, no one famous had died and no natural calamities had accompanied her nativity.
I too, was young then, only a few years older than my maid and I was newly married and far from my north Indian home. I was still in that euphoric state of domestic bliss in which my husband was the composite of all the prince charmings of every fairy story I had ever read and every day a new adventure in happiness. So when one day Kuppam announced that she was getting married and would need a few days leave, I was delighted for her.
Kuppam was back at work shortly after her marriage. All she had to show was one wedding photograph, a posed and artificial picture taken with too bright a light and retouched almost out of recognition. Kuppam, however, was delighted with it. Her husband stood stiffly beside her and both of them were unsmiling, subdued by the camera into total concentration on the unusual business of being photographed so that they almost seemed to squint out of the pasteboard.
She continued to work for me as before and the years passed punctuated by the birth of children. Kuppam took a short leave almost every year and came back to work with an infant clamped to her breast. I came to think of her as either swollen with pregnancy or endlessly nursing a child.
She told me once that her husband was not pleased with her because she produced too many female children; do men really believe that we have power over our wombs, that we are truly goddesses who can reproduce at will and dictate gender? Kuppam told me that her mother had produced eight sons and all but one had died while she and her four sisters had survived. Her parents had given away the only surviving male child, given him another name and then had bought him back, an elaborate charade, all done to cheat cruel providence and it had worked, the boy had lived.
Then one day, as I sat crying over some thing my husband had said, perhaps he had criticised the food I had made, or had not told me my new hair style suited me, I noticed Kuppam moving slowly and tiredly around the room as she swabbed the floors. For a while I watched her and then as she straightened and turned slowly towards me, I gasped. Kuppam’s face was a mass of bruises and one eye had almost closed shut. It was obvious that she was in pain and that her injuries extended from her face to her body as well.
“What is it? What happened to you, Kuppam?” I asked.
“It is nothing Amma,” she replied, trying to smile, and I saw that she had lost a tooth or two, “But this is worse than usual”, I protested. Kuppam’s husband had beaten her before but never with this severity and she, like many women I know, accepted that men beat women. That was when I discovered the meaning of her name.
Kuppam slowly and carefully sat down at my feet. “Amma”, she said, “that is why no one wants to be born a girl. There is nothing in this world for a girl, not if one is born poor. My parents named me Kuppam because that is what I am.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Kuppam means rubbish heap”, she replied, “that is all we are. It is a popular name for girls.”
Then she went back to swabbing the floor.
I have returned to the ancestral house as so many others have done before me. Widowed, abandoned, the shabby decaying old house was the only refuge for a woman alone. Nowadays, nobody says widows are inauspicious; heads are not shaved, silk saris are not removed, bangles are unbroken, but one carries in oneself that long ago sense of being unlucky, cursed.
As I do, though I have come back a divorced woman and that is almost worse, something the family cannot comprehend. Married to a foreigner, I shocked them then and there is an unspoken ‘I told you so’ on the old aunts’ lips.
I have brought my grief and desolation to bury within these familiar walls. I have returned to the scenes of my childhood and in my mind’s eye I see people long departed: my grandparents, grandfather frock coated & mustachioed, my kakima, oiled hair flowing down her back, the keys of the household jangling at the end of her sari; my grandmother, filling the paandaans with betel nut, supari, lime; my pishimas, laying baris out in the sun, with sliced mango and lime for pickles.
Now, as I pace the corridors, avoiding the compassion and curiosity that I see in my relatives’ faces, inhabiting that bleak land on the other side of remembered happiness, I feel like a sea creature stranded far from its element. When occasionally the tide of grief recedes it leaves in its wake remembered things, as the sea retreating, uncovers shells, driftwood and debris sticking out of the sand and it is then that I remember Shona.
Shona pishi was what we children called her; golden aunt, for Shona means gold and pishi stands for paternal aunt. Everyone else called her ‘Returned Daughter’, a sort of annotated sub-text of her history.
Shona was my father’s cousin. In the manner of joint families, my father inherited her as his father had inherited Shona’s mother when she returned as a widow with three daughters.
Grandfather had arranged marriages for the daughters and they had gone to their respective houses while their mother stayed in ours, one of its many dependants. When Shona was ‘returned’ after her marriage, it was to us she came back, to the only home she had ever known.
In whispers that reverberated around the old house (as they do now that I too am returned), they said she was returned because she was not quite right in the head, never had been, the old aunts whispered. Others said that it was because she could not produce a baby, a miracle taken for granted, a commonplace. Some of the aunts murmured behind their hands that there had been some entanglement, something disgraceful, that had caused her to be returned.
Ours is a typical Bengali joint family, every room in the house occupied, sections of the sprawling old mansion with its courtyards and corridors assigned to different branches of the family. There was no individuality (although, sometimes, a younger daughter-in-law or junior sister-in-law grumbled or jostled for more power) but there was an attempt at separateness through which we children streaked like multi coloured fish against the currents. No section of that much partitioned house was barred to us. We grew up ill prepared for loneliness.
Shona did not stay long with her husband before she was so unceremoniously returned, hardly any time at all. Was it her mind or her body that was found wanting? But is the human mind so easily plumbed? Did she transgress the rules of marriage? Now, many years later, I would like to believe that she rebelled against her humdrum marriage and took a lover, took her revenge on an uncaring husband. I have little or no memory of Shona’s bridegroom so I could not, even if I wanted to, compare him to my husband. In any case, they were, literally, worlds apart. I imagine Shona’s husband was what they called a Bengali babu, a sort of clerk. My husband is English, a high ranking UN officer, with what is known as an English sense of humour and we laughed together often. Then he changed, wanted more than I could give and he turned to others to find what he wanted. That we had no children served to loosen the bonds between us.
The family called Shona Returned Daughter, but to us children she was Shonapishi, who told stories, tales of derring-do, faraway myths. Shona wove her stories as others in the household knitted and sewed and her tapestry was a delight of colour, sound, song and magic. She was a child, cast out from a child’s magical world into a cold adult realm of practicality, (what we call the real world) in which she could not sustain herself.
Shona died a long time ago and it is now many years since I married and left the old house, many years since I returned to Bengal, married to a foreigner I had lived in faraway places. Now, exiled from happiness, returned like Shona, my thoughts turn frequently to her and I see her and all the others who formed the kaleidoscope we call family, differently.
When Shona returned from her brief sojourn into matrimony, it was as if she had never been away at all. If there was grief, it was (like mine now) a subterranean thing running through caverns measureless to man. That is the way with women’s grief, it must not be allowed to brim over into madness. The only thing she brought back with her was a parrot named Mithoo to whom she spoke in soft tones, feeding him green chilis and fruit. Looking back, I think I remember her saying “you in your cage, I in mine” but I am not certain of that memory.
The family found good use for Returned Daughter, or perhaps she assumed it because everyone needs a reason for living. Shona made the tea, after which it was the turn of the laundry; she gathered up the dirty clothes from each section of the house and took it to the wash place where for hours she banged, lathered and squeezed, then hung them to dry in squadrons where they flapped on the line like family ghosts. In between she told us stories as we squatted around her, giggling as she banged the clothes against a huge stone and watched the rainbow drops of soapy water.
Oh yes, Returned Daughter made herself useful, but every day at 4.30 precisely, neither later nor earlier, dressed in a clean crisp sari, Shona went to the park near the house. She never ever asked anyone, child or adult, to accompany her. She went alone and sat on a bench, watching the world go by. Elderly people sat and gossiped, children played, all escaping from the small noisy flats that fringed the park.
Shona sat there for one hour precisely and then before dusk fell, she walked back home. This happened every day, as the seasons came and went: the burgeoning bougainvillea, the pale petunia, the resurgent rose, the colours and scents of a Calcutta winter superseded by the heat and humidity of summer, the thunder and lightning of the monsoon.
Now, I sit on that same bench, looking back across the years, surrounded by happy families, children, joggers, and as the scent of winter flowers assail my senses, I wonder what my golden aunt, Returned Daughter, the unlikely Scheherazade of a thousand and one nights, had thought about as she sat there day after day.
Sitting in her place, looking at the people as they walk and jog past me, or sit in vacant dreamlessness on the benches opposite, I wonder what sadness, what privation, lies behind their eyes. Perhaps Shona, too, had wondered, had questioned whether sadness and longing, loneliness and the despair of empty years ahead were her portion alone.
Ours, as I have said, was a joint family in that we all lived together huddled under the same roof, sharing our rice, pooling our income, but what had anyone known of the others? None of us knew what had taken place when Shona went to her brief marriage. It was enough for most of the family that, returned, she knew her place, carried out her duties. Her time in the park was her own, something she carved out of her day and none gainsaid it. If she had secrets, and are there not sections in every human mind that remain like locked rooms to which no one has the key, they died with her and no one in the family seems to remember, the story of Shona Pishi, golden aunt, is forgotten. Her story is lost, just another female tragedy, a little brown mouse caught in a trap. In the park, Ayahs still walk by with babies, children play among the flower beds. But I know something now. Sitting on the bench where she once sat, I know that her calm acceptance will not be mine. I shall not stay within the sheltering walls of the old house. I shall return to the world I fled from where I know there are choices yet to be made. I have lost my way but I must find another path, maybe blaze a trail. I know that one cannot and must not depend entirely on another’s love, that we have to live our own lives. I am no longer a Returned Daughter.
The world has changed since I was young; walls have fallen and new countries formed, carved out of the old. It was in undivided India that I lived and worked and for a young Englishman in those days it was a very heaven.
Now, old and anonymous, in England’s grey winters I look back at an India that was warm, lit with a golden glow, and I reminisce.
One of my memories is of Catriona whom I briefly met…..
I had been invited to a duck shoot by the Raja of Shahabad and stayed in his palace. The drawing room, an enormous room, filled with ornate statuary and sumptuous paintings, was usually empty. One evening, however, when I blundered in there in search of a book that I had abandoned earlier in the day, I found Catriona. She sat there on a brocade sofa for all the world like a lonely little ghost waiting to be freed at last from some long vigil.
“Good evening”, I said, surprised to see her sitting alone in the gloom of that enormous drawing room, “I trust I did not startle you, but I did not know anyone was here.”
“I am always here, every evening I sit here after dinner and wait,” she replied, a soft brogue still recognisable.
I could not imagine what or whom she might be waiting for and so I made some indistinguishable noises, collected my book and prepared to take my departure.
“Are you one of them?” she asked with great wistfulness.
“I beg your pardon”, I said, turning back into the room, “I am afraid I do not understand.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
Looking at her more closely, my eyes having adjusted to the dim lighting, I saw that she must indeed have been very pretty some years ago. There was now something faded about her looks that was not dissimilar to a pretty pink rose that has begun to lose its crisp new colour, the petals beginning to curl outwards. Women have always reminded me of roses, I do not know why and there is to my mind great pathos in a rose and a woman who are both full blown.
I told her that I was a civil servant. “I am on holiday here at the invitation of the Raja and I am staying in the palace as his guest,” I explained.
“Who else is here?” she asked in that gentle voice that to my mind called up, I do not know why, the soft rain of Ireland. Well, I was young and romantic then.
“Oh, a great may people, it is quite a large party that the Raja is entertaining. Why, might I ask, do you not join us?”
The woman huddled into a corner of the sofa as though she winced away from my question. “I could not do that,” she whispered, “but if only…..”
“If only what?” I encouraged her.
“If only they would come in here”. She was silent for a while and I thought no more was going to be said, when she added sadly: ” but they never do”.
I could think of no rejoinder because I had not the faintest notion what she was talking about so I stood silent, poised for departure, yet strangely irresolute.
Thee was an unearthly cry from the gardens beyond and I must have started for she said: “Do not be startled, they are the peacocks, a pair of rare white peacocks. I think they are the most beautiful creatures but I suppose, really, they are strange and out of place like…” her voice trailed off and then she spoke again: “I have not seen you on other occasions, I think you have not been here before.”
“No, indeed,” I acquiesced, “this is my first time here. I met the Raja last winter at a duck shoot and he kindly invited me.”
“He holds these parties every year, although each time he says he will not do it again. Every time our hopes are dashed.”
Just as I was about to ask what she meant, for not only had I no idea who she was, I had not the smallest idea what she was talking about, the great doors were thrown back and the Raja entered. He went over to where the woman was seated on the sofa. Some of his attendants following behind had thrown a switch and the large beautiful chandeliers sprang into light refracted a hundred times in the crystal pendants and the mirrored walls.
“Catriona”, the Raja said, bending over her, “they will not come my dearest. You must not wait here any longer, you must go to your room.” He snapped his fingers and a woman I had not noticed, who must have been crouched somewhere behind, came forward and led the lady away. As he went, she smiled sweetly and I thought I heard her murmur: “He came, he came to see me”.
The Raja and I stood looking after her. I knew then who she was, she was the Irish Rani, not the only wife but, if rumour were true and it seemed borne out by his tender manner, the favourite wife.
He turned to me. “Every evening she sits and waits for my English guests to visit her and they do not come. I have said I will invite them no more but every time she begs that I will do so one more time. ‘Maybe this time’, she says and I give in. Why are her own people so cruel to her whose only fault is that she loved and married an Indian?”
I had no answer for him but I was glad that I had blundered into that room and spoken to that lonely little foreign rani. I never met her again and she died soon after from one of those virulent fevers that took their revenge on the alien.
I was told that when she lay dying her bed was covered with toys, jewels, music boxes….anything that her distraught husband could think of that might amuse her.
At her death, as a mark of particular respect not usually accorded to most people, he ordered the sacrifice of the white peacocks. Alien creatures and out of place like Catriona.
The Raja meant well, it was a signal honour, but I am sure it would have distressed her had she known. Another misunderstanding in that land where our cultures collided.
Now, sitting in Cheltenham and looking out at a grey landscape, I wonder where it all went wrong…
LOOKING THE WIND IN THE EYE
ingli, her mother had always said, was a headstrong girl. Her father spoiled her, the child of his old age. He had had sons with his other wives but then, late in life, he had taken another wife and she had produced Jingliben, his only daughter. When the village children played games it was always Jingliben who chose the best places to hide, who held out the longest in scary places where ghosts and headless monsters were said to live, who was known for her complete honesty, never changing her story or telling a lie to escape punishment. She climbed the tallest trees just like a boy and in any rough and tumble she gave as good as she got. Unlike the other girls, Jingli never cried. Not in public.Her mother had also said that if she didn’t change her ways, Jingliben would know trouble, because girls are not meant to be that way.
“She has the spirit of a boy”, said both her father and her mother. Her father had said it with pride, but her mother’s voice was full of foreboding. She knew that the world her daughter must inhabit had no place for women such as she. “It is better”, she told her heedless daughter, “to bend with the wind. See how the bamboo bends and does not break while the wind sweeps down and smashes proud plants that stand tall and try to look the wind in the eye.”
But that was not Jingli’s way. She looked the wind in the eye and refused to bend; she just laughed at her mother’s tales of doom. “She runs in the face of the wind”, said Jingli’s mother in despair, “how can I restrain her? Who can say what trouble she will bring?”
When her father died Jingli was still very young. Her brothers, many years older than herself, arranged her marriage and her mother, now a helpless widow, had to acquiesce in the arrangements. The bridegroom chosen for 15 year old Jingliben was a young farmer from the neighbouring village of Bordeli. He was not a very bright young man but he was hardworking and owned a small piece of land, a herd of cows and some goats. Jingli’s brothers paid him a dowry and gave Rs 2,500 for the marriage, which included a feast for the entire village of Bordeli. On the wedding day, after the simple ceremonies were over, everybody gathered for the feast and Jingliben looked around her at the assembled villagers, a few hundred people. All the faces that surrounded her were unfamiliar and as she looked at them through her veil she felt a shudder of fear go through her, shaking her entire body. She was astonished by the feeling because there was little that Jingliben was afraid of. She glanced at her husband who sat placidly eating his food, surrounded by his friends. There was nothing there to frighten her, Somalabhai Ramsinh looked entirely harmless. As if sensing her stare, the young man looked up and smiled in her direction and instead of casting her eyes down and looking shy, Jingli smiled back, tossing her head so that the veil fell back from her face.
There were those who noticed the interchange. “A bold girl”, said one and the others concurred. It was not usual for the villagers to disagree with Inderiya Ramsinh. He was the local witch doctor and a very powerful man. His eyes seemed to look through people and they were never sure what he saw but the consequences could be awful. He went on: “We will have to teach her the ways of Bordeli, the ways of our women.” The others nodded and everyone looked away. It was as if a cloud had come over the day. Jingli looked up straight into Inderiya’s eyes; for a long moment their gaze caught and held. It was a contest of wills and neither was prepared to give in. It was, of course, Jingli who should have looked away as a modest shy young bride ought. But that was not her way. She stared right back at the man and finally, it was he who glanced aside and Jingli smiled triumphantly. She should have known better, but Jingli as her family and friends would have said, never could resist any sort of challenge. She had sensed a challenge there.
The years passed in the way they do in a small remote village. Bordeli is a tribal village and the inhabitants keep very much to themselves and away from outsiders. Somalabhai and Jingli lived together quite happily although neither of them would have thought to say so; happiness was not something concrete that one could lay hands on, taste or smell. They were not unhappy with each other although Somalabhai would have liked one more son. He liked the food his wife cooked and he liked to sleep with her at night. In every other way, life went on for him exactly as it had before he married.
Jingliben was content, too. She had a son and two daughters and there was enough to eat and drink for all of them. Somalabhai did not beat her as many of the other husbands in the village beat their wives, especially when they had drunk too much liquor, a common enough occurrence, and he gave her enough money to buy things such as the silver jewellery she loved. She had made friends in the village; she and a group of other women went down to the river together to bathe and wash clothes and there they gossiped and played games until it was time to return to their households. Her black eyes were merry, bright and restless, darting this way and that; she was shapely and slender, walking with an easy stride, hips swaying as she balanced her pitchers of water, one on her head and the other at her hip.
Jingliben climbed up trees and collected fruit and nuts; she was, her friends said, like a squirrel, her hands and her mouth always filled to overflowing. She had a merry spirit and she loved to play pranks on her friends, jumping out at them, pretending to be a bhootini, scaring them out of their wits. She could tell the most frightening stories that no one, not the most timid among them, could resist, so full were they of colour and sound and atmosphere. Many of Jingli’s best stories were about witches. There had always been witches in the village; women who had supernatural powers, who could heal the sick or bring about terrible sickness with just one glance. They were not women to be crossed lightly, not unless you were a witch yourself, one with greater power. It was not a good thing to be known as a witch; women with power of any sort are dangerous and men know that this cannot be tolerated. When things go wrong there has to be a reason and usually it is a woman. Beating to death was the way the men of Bordeli had always dealt with witches in their midst.
Then one day the terrible sickness known as Cholera came to Bordeli. Many people died. To make matters worse, several animals, cows and goats, died as well of some mysterious disease that no one could understand, let alone withstand. Cattle are the wealth of a tribal village. Death was sudden.
Inderiya was the strongest of the witch doctors, feared by both men and women and possibly, even by the gods so the villagers turned to him. Inderiya cast a burning glance on the assembled villagers and seemed to go into a trance. He spoke in a slow sepulchral voice unlike his own normal deep tone and for the desperate villagers he had one answer: find the dankan (witches) in your midst and destroy them. He called for seven days of fasting and under the giant banyan tree on the outskirts of the village he installed the village deity Baba Dev. While the villagers danced around him, Inderiya Ramsinh went into a deep trance. As the villagers prolonged the day’s fasting beyond the usual twelve hours, more men, about ten of them, went into a trance. They claimed to be possessed by the mother goddess. Sakti, supernatural feminine power, is the only kind that men can accept. Men thus possessed are treated with great respect because it is believed the deity only enters the minds of those who are completely pure.
The fasting continued over the next few days and the village of Bordeli was in a state of intense excitement; the villagers were like dry wood just before a torch is lit. On the fifth day of fasting, Inderiya called out in a great voice that the mother goddess had told him that the troubles of the village were due to dankan or witches. The possessed men then proceeded to light incense sticks.
Everyone was suddenly still, they all knew what was about to happen. The possessed men would be told by the mother goddess who among the women gathered there were witches. The men stopped before each woman, held out their incense sticks and then smelled them. From the smell, they said, they could tell which ones were witches. A number of women were selected and forced out of the throng into the centre. None of the women dared to move, to seem to recoil. Inderiya stopped in front of Jingli and stared at her.
Jingli drew in her breath in a sharp hiss, but her eyes did not look away. Their eyes locked and held and Jingli recalled her wedding day. She had not given in then and she would not now. She tossed her head and stared him in the eye. Inderiya gave a sign and Jingli was dragged out, away from her unresisting husband. As they circulated among the crowd the men drew out about twenty women and isolated them. Twelve of them knew at once what would follow and they fell to the ground, begging the witch doctor’s forgiveness. That was not enough. Each one was commanded to state how many humans and animals they had consumed. “I ate my neighbour’s children” said one. “I ate the goats and cows” said others. Eight women, Jingli among them, refused to admit that they were witches. As the sun rose among the palm trees, they were beaten with sticks and coconuts. Patli, Jingli’s best friend, held out for as long as she could then with a despairing look at her friend, she cried out that she was indeed a witch and had repented. Another woman, Hirli, her palms and ankles swollen by repeated beatings, also confessed. Finally, as the women recanted, only Jingliben and a woman named Chelbai were left. Inderiya raised his hand and everybody was silent, even the weeping women and their wailing children muffled the sounds of their pain. Inderiya pulled Chelbai forward.
In a sudden dramatic movement he seized her by her hair which fell in rippling length down her back. Then he called out the woman’s five year old son. As the boy stepped forward, hanging his head, Inderiya commanded him to cut off his mother’s long, flowing hair. The child hesitated and began to cry. Inderiya raised his bony hand and scowled at the child. Reluctantly, sensing that he had no support, the boy moved forward and began the task. As the first long locks of hair fell to the ground, weeping, Chelbai finally admitted that she was a witch.
Now only Jingliben was left. But she refused to confess. “I am not a witch, I have done nothing”, she kept screaming. The villagers tried to persuade her to give in but she remained steadfast. All day she was beaten but she would not change her stand. As darkness fell the villagers returned home. That night Somalabhai asked Jingli: “Are you a witch?” “No I am not” she replied as she attended to her injuries, “no I am not a witch and I shall not say that I am. No one can make me do that.”
Later, they asked Somalabhai: “Did you believe her?”
“Yes”, he replied simply. “I believed her.”
Late that night, fearing more beating the next day, Jingli rose from bed and limped her way more than 10 kilometres to the next village where her sister lived. As she had expected, the next morning Inderiya and his cohorts were at her husband’s door demanding that he hand over his wife. Somalabhai told them that she was gone. In a matter of minutes he had told Inderiya where. He said afterwards that he had not meant to tell.
Two men were sent after her and in the late afternoon they returned dragging Jingli with them. Her feet, hands and face were swollen from the previous day’s beatings but no one dared interfere. Inderiya and the villagers, including her husband, were waiting for her under the huge banyan tree.
Terrified, Jingli’s eyes looked at the assembled villagers, hundreds of them. They were the same people who had been at her wedding feast not so long ago. No one came to her rescue and she did not expect them to. No one dared challenge the god man Inderiya. A hush fell on the assembled crowd and a stillness in which it seemed not even a muscle moved.
Inderiya seemed to be praying. Then he stooped and lifted up a coconut. Everyone gasped, a collective sound of fear and expectancy. Jingliben screamed as the first blow descended on her head. A few more blows and then there was silence. It was all over. Jingliben’s body lay crumpled on the ground, her skull broken. It was her fault, wasn’t it? Why did she refuse to admit that she was a witch? That was all they wanted, a confession and surely a woman must know her place? She had always been headstrong, she had looked the wind in the eye.
Bordeli gives no indication of what took place on that afternoon. Life goes on, perhaps they do indeed believe that the gods were avenged for the wrongs done by the witches. Somalabhai looks contented enough. After all, as the villagers say, you can always get another wife, no problem. The villagers have pooled together enough money so that he can get another wife and soon they will have a marriage feast for the entire village.
THE NUMBER TWO MAID
Supha had been a number two maid for some years now. She remained number two because, despite working for many years with farang (foreign)
people, she had managed to acquire only a smattering of English and often forgot things like side plates and fish knives when setting the table. When she cooked dinner on the number one’s day off, Supha could produce only Thai food and never remembered to control the chilis.
“Too much phrik?” she would ask innocently when upbraided by an indignant family, mouths afire. Only the master of the house had been amused, more by the word for chilis, but that amusement had ceased abruptly when a particularly virile species known as mouse droppings found its way into his mouth and he bit down on it.
The Mallorys were fond of Supha in a casual, unthinking sort of way. Mrs Mallory said she only kept Supha on because of her smile. “She smiles so sweetly when she’s broken my best china or brings the soup in a jug, that one sort of stops being angry,” she said. The children liked Supha because she did whatever they told her, never scolded and absolutely never reported their misdoings to their parents. The master of the house would probably have been unable to identify Supha had he met her accidentally in the soi (lane) because when he was in the house she scuttled about, keeping as close to the wall as possible.
Every year when the Mallorys departed to England on their annual summer holiday, Supha went home for one week. She went, Mrs Mallory said rather vaguely, to her village somewhere in the north east. She only got one week off because all the servants had to have time off while their employers were away and someone had to be in the house to take care of the family pets.
These were two dogs, three cats, a monkey and several birds, all acquired by the children on their weekend visits to the animal market in Chatuchak. Supha had once enquired, very timidly, if she might be allowed to bring her child back to Bangkok to live with her in the small dark room she occupied at the back of the house.
“No”, Susan Mallory had replied categorically, “I told you, no family living with you here. That is the rule.”
Supha had no idea what rule meant but she knew the word no; she had smiled, bowed her head and gone on with her duties. Susan Mallory had explained herself more fully at her weekly bridge table. “Once you start that sort of thing it’s the thin end of the wedge. First it’s one child, then along comes hubby, then more babies and assorted relatives follow. No, thankyou
Her friends all laughed and agreed with her: “My husband’s colleague has his house full of the maid’s family and relations kept popping up all the time. His wife said that when she got here she didn’t know who everyone was when she went in her own kitchen.”
“I just could not live like that”, said another woman, “I find it difficult enough having the one maid in my apartment, I find it such an invasion of my privacy. Fortunately, she’s fairly unobtrusive.”
“Yes”, they all agreed, “they are quite good at making themselves scarce” and one wit added: “My Moo (aren’t their names ridiculous?) makes a fine art of it, never there when she’s wanted and after I’ve screamed myself hoarse shouting for her, she wanders in as cool as a cucumber saying ‘Madame call?’ I’m fit to burst sometimes.”
Susan Mallory noticed that her friend Jane Morris was looking rather distrait. “What’s the matter, Jane?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing really, but John says we really have to begin thinking about sending the children to school in England and I get so upset at the thought of it.”
Supha did not see the bridge players because it was the number one maid Noi’s duty to take in the coffee, sandwiches and beautifully carved fruit, but she would have been astonished to know that the ladies actually talked about her, a humble number two maid. In fact, had she but known it, the farang ladies talked a lot about their maids, the difficulty of getting a good one and especially one that spoke English.
“You would think they’d have learned a bit more by now, what with so many foreigners in Bangkok and all these tourists. But no, you go into Central Department Store and ask for something and they look at you as if you were a Martian or something.”
“I suppose”, said Susan Mallory, “one ought to make more of an effort to learn Thai, but those tones are so difficult and when you get them even ever so slightly wrong they look at you in total incomprehension.”
“Did you know”, asked her friend Pamela Lewis, “that if you say the word `mai’ three different ways it means `new silk burns’ or some such?” Everyone agreed that the effort of learning the language was too great, especially since one could get by very well without it if one confined oneself to shops like Villa which catered for foreigners and everywhere else the calculator was an effective means of communication when one needed to know the price of something; then one just seized it and punched in the amount you were willing to pay and so on.
“Quite amazing, really” Susan Mallory commented.
Meanwhile, time went on and one day Supha broke six glasses in one fell swoop. It was hard to tell who was more heartbroken, mistress or maid. “They were Dartington glass, quite impossible to replace here, even if you could afford them”. To herself she thought it would make quite a good story to retail at the bridge table, something about her maid being smashing in more ways than one.
As usual, the greater part of what the madame said went right over Supha’s head and she made her own interpretation, based largely (as always) on the last few words which were the only ones she caught. She asked for a brief leave of absence and disappeared from the house for the better part of the afternoon.
“Well, how do you like that?” Susan stormed when she found that Supha had not returned, “she breaks my glasses and then she goes off to sulk.” Half an hour later, Supha was back, smiling her beautiful smile.
“And where do you think you have been?” demanded her irate employer and was about to say more when a beaming Supha laid a beautifully wrapped box from Central on her lap. Somewhat abashed, Susan Mallory opened the box and found nestling in its depths six hideous mock crystal glasses. She was silent because, ugly though they indubitably were, she knew what they must have cost and she was at a loss for words.
Noi, the number one, came in to translate: “Madame like? Supha want to know. She say she buy best glasses she can get, she say she afford them, borrow money, pay back every month.”
Susan told that story at her next bridge party and because she was basically a decent person, she told it against herself.
“Phew! Talk about loss of face,” she said, “I just didn’t know where to look. But the worst thing is having to find excuses not to use those dreadful glasses; I’ve had to say they are too nice, which means she goes right on using my best ones, chipping, scratching and smashing as she goes.”
So life went on in the Mallory household and for a long time no one noticed that Supha’s wonderful smile was dimmed, was in fact, pretty well extinct. By the time Susan found time from playing tennis, golf, attending welfare committees, to ask her maid if anything was the matter, at least a month had passed. Supha had gained a measure of self control; in any case, being Thai, she did not give vent to her emotions in public and what, if anything, went on in her little room at the back of the house took place in her own time and is outside the purview of this story.
“What is the matter, Supha, something wrong?” Mrs Mallory asked in that special slow voice she reserved for speaking to Thais. There was an undertone of exasperation in her voice as she was on her way to play tennis and Supha registered this for it was a familiar nuance whenever the mistress spoke to her.
“No Madame, all okay, thank you,” Supha smiled a travesty of a smile, but tears had appeared in her eyes and Susan paused to ask: “Are you sure? What is the problem?” Supha looked up and caught her mistress glancing at her watch. She hesitated and then blurted: “My little baby, she sick many days. She tai laoh.” Susan understood this to mean that the little daughter was dead.
Immediately, she opened her handbag and pulled out a fistful of notes which she thrust at Supha. “You need to go home, you go”, she said, “I am very sorry Supha, you go for as long as you need. Tell Noi.” Clumsily, she patted her maid on the shoulder and dived out to her car where the driver stood waiting, holding open the door, his face impassive. Supha followed, her hands together, she bowed deeply.
Susan was embarrassed and she nodded somewhat cursorily, telling the driver to start the car as she was already late. The car shot forward and turning back, Susan saw Supha still standing there, her hands pressed together in greeting.
Into her mind came a recollection of the little baby gibbon that had been rescued by an animal welfare organisation which she supported. The only way you can get a baby gibbon is by killing its mother. Why had she thought of that now?
Later she discussed the matter with her friends and Pamela Lewis, who had been in Bangkok the longest, expressed all their feelings when she said reassuringly: “People in these countries don’t have the same gamut of emotions that we have. Besides, life is cheap. In no time at all she will have another baby and that will be that.”
All the ladies nodded, looked solemn, as they bit into the chocolate cake so perfectly baked by the number one maid. Susan Mallory had a fleeting memory of Supha’s tear filled eyes and remembered her refusal to let the maid bring her child to Bangkok. She thought of the grieving mother now journeying back to her remote village and her dead child. She shook herself. `They don’t think like that’, she said firmly to herself and reached for another slice of cake.
y marriage failed. But surely that is wrong, a marriage is not a singular possession, it belongs to two people and so I should rephrase that and say our marriage failed. Then again, if only one person is aware that things are going wrong, that love has died, is it not my marriage that failed? When two people separate the marriage splits into two: yours and mine. Mine was the failed one.
I suppose I had been aware for a long time in the back room of my mind that all was not well, but which of us really has any mode of comparison? When the body is not well we can contrast it with our knowledge of wellbeing, of good health. But unless one has been married before, what can one compare one’s marriage to?
My mother mourns her husband with stoic resignation; she plans to lie beside him in death as she did in life. He stole away from her one night and she awoke the next morning to find him gone. She has put away all the things he used and has locked up the study where he spent so many hours. Then, when I went to visit her last week, she pointed to a picture that I remembered as always having hung in the living room. “Perhaps I will take it down and give it away; maybe I will give it to the next church sale,” she said.
“But Mother,” I protested “why?”
She considered the picture, her head tilted to one side. “I never liked it”, she replied, “your father brought it home one day and he was so pleased with it, the first painting he had ever bought and I could not say I did not like it, so I never did and it has hung there ever since. But he’s gone now, it won’t hurt him and I have better ways of remembering him.”
For us, my husband and me, it is not going to be so easy: the division of the spoils. Objects make up a marriage, there is mine and yours which becomes ours and then it goes back again to mine and yours and must be shared out as equitably as possible. The house that held the marriage must be dismantled and handed over to others who may be more careful of its soul.
How does one remember a person who has not died? He goes on and is changing in ways that will be unknown to you. Do you remember only the good times when you felt happy, when it seemed that there was no past, just those moments of intensity? Does one put out of one’s mind the small creeping coldness of being lonely even when he is there, the cessation of communication, the banal words when even one’s eyes fail to meet?
My mother has to suffer the loneliness of bereavement, but she has not had to endure the betrayal of love, so she can give away a painting that my father had loved and the action can do nothing to hurt her. For me, every object that we parcel up and divide between us is redolent of something lost and betrayed. When I now pass the house where we once lived, (so happily I had thought), other people have already moved in and obliterated a part of my life and yet the ghosts cling and wave to me from every window until I am forced to turn tail and flee. I can walk down that road no more. There is now and there is then.
My mother never did give away my father’s painting. It is enough for her that she can say she had never liked it and now it serves to remind her of the day, many long years ago, when both she and her husband were young and he brought home the painting. Did she mind that he brought home something she did not like, that he had not consulted her about and had then placed in a position of honour in their front room?
“He was like that”, she replies with a smile, “he did what he liked and I liked to see him happy.“ That was an answer to a different question, one that I had not asked.
There was space in their marriage, they felt no need to overlap. I always needed to know that my husband was in my space and I in his, I could not bear not to know what he was thinking and feeling. Isn’t that love, that feeling of closeness, of oneness? I always needed to know that I was loved. I do not think my father ever actually said I love you to my mother. “He did not need to,” says my mother, “we were married, weren’t we?”
“And that is enough?”
“Words are meaningless”, said my mother. “Anyone can say any words and mean them or not mean them. We have to know with our hearts and the heart does not speak. In any case, it is one’s destiny.”
But I am different. My husband, too, does what he likes and sometimes it made me happy, but at other times what he liked meant that I was pushed to one side and that did not make me happy. Was I being selfish?
“Two people are not always equal”, says my mother, “you have to take things turn and turn about and even the turns cannot be equally spaced out.”
Why does it seem as if I miss my husband of a few short years from whom I parted voluntarily more than my mother does her husband of almost a lifetime? Is it because of the inevitability of death or is it because she can cling to her memories of happiness, of a marriage well spent? Is it because you never lose the person whom you love?
t is my birthday and once again, I have chosen to spend it with my favourite aunt, my godmother. My aunt’s memory is failing after a stroke and now on this visit together we pick at its fabric, skirting the many holes that riddle it. She was not always like this, lying helpless, inert and expressionless on her bed, with only a brief and fugitive emotion sometimes appearing, so briefly, that it may well be only in my imagination. Dredging the past, seeking for some jewelled memory that may help to light up the dreary wastes of her mind, in my mind’s eye I suddenly see again that long ago day when I was thirteen and she a beautiful young woman in her prime. Perhaps it is the salt tang of urine that hangs like a miasma in her room, despite the use of perfumed disinfectants, that causes my mind to go back to that day on the beach so long ago when I turned thirteen on the 13th of July and I begin to talk, picking the way through my memories..
In those days, thirteen was young; we had no television to broaden our horizons, we only saw those movies that were clearly intended for children and we had no boy friends on whom to practice the rituals of the grown-ups’ mating game. Sex education in school in those days was a purely clinical affair of physiology which a modest female teacher taught with a disregard for emotion and only a token glance at the physical parts thereof, what one might call below the belt. She was much more at home in the complementary subject, which was hygiene.
Nevertheless, I was becoming uneasily aware that my physiology was changing, heralding new things that I was not comfortable with. It seemed to me that the world was suddenly becoming a more threatening place, more complicated and that, willy-nilly, I was being forced out into this unfamiliar world. It all crystallized on my thirteenth birthday.
My aunt, with whom I was staying during my school holidays, gave a little party to celebrate my birthday on the beach outside her home. We had a time-honoured tradition that whenever I spent my birthday with her, she always made me thirteen of some favourite dish in honour of the date.
This time she cooked 13 and a lot of other goodies which we carried down to the beach at sunset.
It was a long and lonely sandy beach on the west coast where the Indian Ocean came in and rolled and gambolled like a pet dog that fawns at your feet wanting its tummy scratched. There was no one else along that stretch of creamy white sand, because the natives were not given to disporting themselves in the sea and those who worked on the beach, the fisher folk, had long since gone home leaving only their nets stretched out to dry and their boats secured against the ocean’s blandishments.
We had it all entirely to ourselves and we watched as the sky turned red and orange and golden and then purpled into night. Dusk falls very rapidly and almost before the sun had sunk over the horizon, it was night. The sea darkened and grew mysterious as its innocent blue-green deepened and the blackness at the heart of each wave glinted enticingly in the moonlight, hinting at mysterious and dangerous depths. I did not know how to swim and although I had not told my aunt, I was a little afraid of water and I was also scared of the dark. She always seemed so unafraid, so sure of herself in a world in which she had to make her own way.
For my party, if you could call it that, there were only two guests. There was Sheeley who I supposed was about my age, although she seemed older, and she was accompanied by her father. He was a very tall man, well muscled, who looked to my adolescent and unaccustomed eye, aggressively masculine in his swimming trunks which revealed more than they concealed. I had never seen my father in such scanty wear and there were no other males in my family.
My aunt was a beautiful young woman then with a face that I later recognised when I saw the Sistine madonna. She was not married, although well beyond the age when girls got married, because my grandfather had a great many daughters and not enough dowries for all of them. So my aunt earned her own living and helped her younger sisters towards matrimony, her brothers up the ladder of life.
After the thirteen , the chicken curry and all the other delicious accompaniments had been demolished and before the ice cream was due to come out of its ice-filled churn and the birthday cake from its wrappings, my aunt decided that it was time for a walk along the beach. In the gathering gloom, for it was not a full moon night, we set off and soon Sheeley’s father and my aunt had outstripped us and were striding on ahead. Sheeley and I ambled along far behind, stopping now and then because I would halt to look up at the stars in the sky, brighter than they ever were in the city in which I lived and I watched for a shooting star upon which I might make a wish.
Sheeley and I chatted together as children do who do not know each other very well, amiably enough, but with a certain reserve not unlike the way two dogs will size each other up, walking stiff legged around each other, advancing and retreating.
“Do you really like my present?” Sheeley asked.
She had given me a pink plastic bowl containing a highly scented powder with a great fluffy powder puff of the same baby pink.
“I love it”, I replied and eyed her covertly. Would she sense the artificiality in my voice and guess that I would have far preferred a book? I never used powder.
“My mother chose it”, said Sheeley and now it was she who gave me a strange look. “She thought it would be suitable.”
“Why did she not come also?” I asked, ignoring the question of the present’s suitability, although my mind asked irrepressibly:
“She does not go out like that”, Sheeley answered. There was a pause while I considered the implications of what she had said; go out like what? Was there something not quite right about a thirteen year old’s birthday party on the beach? It echoed something in my own mind, but I was not quite sure what, unless it was a sense of something inappropriate.
I glanced ahead to where my aunt was walking with her escort and it seemed to me that the wind which blew in from the sea drew them together so that it briefly appeared as if their bodies fused into one. I shivered, for the breeze was cool and tangy, but it was within myself that I experienced a strange sensation as I looked at the two figures that seemed to lean towards one another.
Sheeley continued her own train of thought. “My Mama is not like your aunty. She is not a working woman, she looks after her family. Your aunty works in my father’s office. You know that, don’t you?” A sidelong look accompanied her words. I did not know it then but I would learn the pejorative nature of the phrase ‘working woman’ that hovered on Sheeley’s lips. Respectable women married and married young.
I looked again along the never ending expanse of beach and saw the two figures of my aunt and Sheeley’s father rapidly dwindling in the distance. What were they talking about? Earlier, before the distance between us had grown, I had heard their murmured voices and my aunt’s low melodious laugh but now they were silenced by the roar and explosive plash of the ocean rolling in and out so relentlessly.
I skipped out of the reach of an insidious wave that had crept up the sand and now seemed to leap up like a pouncing animal.
“Are you afraid of the sea?” asked Sheeley and I sensed a faint derision in her voice. Something told me that she did not like me, that there was something she was angry about. I could not imagine what it might be, it could not be anything I had done, for I had done nothing. I had thanked her for the pink powder and puff in its bowl with, I was sure, appropriate gratitude.
She had taken off her frock and under it she wore a swimsuit in what I thought of as mermaid green. She danced in and out among the waves. Her body was wet for she had allowed the sea to play with her as I had not. Her swimsuit clung to her and I noticed that she had breasts, that her body was not flat and straight and thin like mine.
“I do not know how to swim”, I replied, “I have only been to the seaside about twice in my life.”
“My father is a very good swimmer, he can swim far out”, and Sheeley threw out her arm across the darkening expanse of water that glimmered before us. For some strange reason I did not ask whether her mother also swam, but Sheeley volunteered that information.
“My mother swims very well, everybody who lives on this coast does, but she is not like your aunty, she does not swim with outsiders.” She gave me a sly sideways look and added: “Do you think he is handsome? I’m sure your aunty does.”
Pretending not to hear, I stopped walking and tucked my pretty taffeta frock that my aunt had made for me firmly into my knickers. I thought about a whole race of people who lived by the sea and learned their skills from it; where did that leave us, people like me, landlubbers, with none of those skills? Well, as I pulled up my knickers, I said to myself, I may be no swimmer but I am a very good runner and I am not to be outdone. “Race you to the other end of the beach”, I challenged her.
But: “Oh no”, she responded, “I don’t feel like doing things like that. It’s too childish.” I caught her look and saw myself in it, my long and skinny legs sticking out of my home made cotton knickers, my dress bunched up.
Looking along the beach I saw with a sense of alarm that my aunt and Sheeley’s father had vanished from view. Where could they have gone? It was not right of my aunt to have left me alone like this on my birthday, I felt tears brimming in my eyes and knuckled them angrily away.
“There they are”, cried Sheeley, “look, way out there”.
I followed the direction of her arm and out amid the pounding surf I saw two heads bobbing like seals among the waves. Every time the sea crested into a huge wave they seemed to vanish beneath it and then rose triumphant within it. They seemed such a very long and dangerous way away, in an element that filled me with dread.
Then they turned and made their way to land and as they came out of the water and walked towards us, they were laughing. My aunt’s breasts rose out of her swimming costume and the sand patterned her wet legs; there was about her the look of a creature that had come out of its element and I felt an inarticulate and aching sadness come over me.
I experienced a great sense of isolation as I stood there and watched. I felt as if enfolded in the wing of a great black bird and I realised that I stood on the brink of something I did not comprehend. Suddenly I felt like one of those huge rocks that stood on the beach, the one that had a hole right through the middle of it; my lovely clear bright day had turned black like a film negative, everything reversed, the images a harsh white at its edges. I was aware, dimly, of unhappiness, loneliness, frustration… a feeling, barely apprehended, that this was what lay ahead in the grown up world that I was entering.
As the sea lapped about my feet and almost seemed to rub around my legs like a caressing cat, I thought (or I think I thought it then, it might in fact, be a later thought) that the sea, churning and foaming so seductively, was like life, prettied up to deceive you. Then, pouncing, it drenched you and left you soaked and shivering. I knew somehow, that none of us were happy….not Sheeley, her father, or my aunt. My world was changing.
“Time for ice cream and cake”, my aunt called out and her voice was ordinary and reassuring, “have you and Sheeley been enjoying yourselves?”
I caught the look Sheeley exchanged with her father as she proffered him the towel she had worn around her shoulders. There was in that look complicity and contrition and something else. Could it have been dislike? There was certainly pride in his appearance. He was, as his daughter had said, handsome and there was an overpowering maleness about him as he stood there laughing, flicking the end of the towel at Sheeley. One end of that towel smacked her rather hard on the face and I saw tears well in her eyes before she turned and made a playful grab at the towel. I did not look at him then because he made me feel shy, there seemed so much of him and almost all of it undressed, and so when I run that scene in my memory, I still do not know everything that went into that tableau.
It all dissolved as he seized the towel and began to dry my aunt with it. She sat there in the sand like a madonna with her long hair loose on her shoulders and a half smile that I recognised later on the Mona Lisa…secretive, sensual, she was suddenly a stranger. There was a great deal more laughter as they rubbed each other dry and then we sat down to the cake and ice cream and in my mouth was the taste of sand and salt and the sea salt tang in the air.
My aunt lies on her bed supine and looks up at me as I reminisce, my narrative of necessity nuanced and oblique.
“Do you remember?” I ask eagerly, hoping to catch a flash of some expression that would illumine her eyes.
A look that might be pain crosses her face momentarily, a face where now the remnants of beauty may be discerned only by those who remember her as she was.
“I remember nothing”, she says blankly, “I do not remember your birthday…or mine.”
Then, after a pause, she adds, her voice tentative, struggling against the stroke that has her in its iron grip: “I am not sure who you are.”
THE NOODLE STALL
From the first moment she saw it, Preeda was fascinated by the noodle stand and determined that one day, when she had enough money saved, it would be hers. She would paint the cart, all the curlicues on its canopy and over its wheels a beautiful blue, see fah, the colour of a cloudless sky. She would put new, clean glass cases on the stand in which she would exhibit her wares, the kuaytiao and her special som tam. And she would have a big colourful umbrella to protect herself and her customers from the sun.
Preeda was from Esaan, the north east of Thailand. She was 14 years old and had come to Bangkok to work as a maid for Wanida who was also from Esaan, from the very same village. In their village most of the young girls and the boys, too, thought of Bangkok as the city of their dreams where they would become rich and live a life of ease. A life as different from that of their parents as was possible. None of them wanted to toil in the fields as their parents did for so little reward. They knew that a better life was available, it was theirs to reach out and take, but not in the village, only in Krungthep, the city of angels, Bangkok. That is where the money was, where the good life might be found.
There are only a few good months each year in Esaan and that is when the heavens open and the rain pours down. Then a cool wind from China comes to refresh the hot land and brings in its wake the harvest season when the rice turns ripe yellow and the villagers turn out to reap the precious grain. But there is never enough for the many. The cycle of life turns in this, the poorest region of Thailand, from scarcity to total privation when drinking water becomes hard to find and Esaan children have been known to resort to salt lick to appease the pangs of hunger. In Preeda’s home an entire family supped on tiny frogs, a fried fish and sticky rice and sometimes, a boiled egg. That was when things were going well…
Wanida was older than Preeda, she had come to Bangkok some years earlier and she had found work as a go-go dancer at a club called The Lucky Strip Joint. She was popular, frequently bought out from the bar by admiring patrons. Wanida was very pretty. Preeda was not beautiful like Wanida, although she had a sweet face and eyes that looked at you with directness and honesty.
When Wanida had returned to her village for a visit she had been laden with largesse for her family, while the neighbours had looked on enviously. Everyone knew the source of Wanida’s affluence but no one alluded to it. What is unpalatable is best ignored and few if any of those villagers had any other options. Morality did not buy gold or put food in one’s bowl; it was as simple as that.
While Wanida was there the village celebrated. Every day they congregated on the porch of Wanida’s house which had been newly built for her parents by Wanida. She sat around all day in a pa neung while her visitors admiringly fingered her fashionable garments: her slacks, jeans and dresses. She had tee shirts emblazoned with words such as UCLA and Los Angeles and slogans in English that they could not read but they fingered it all respectfully. Wanida would send one or other little urchin (and there were plenty of those) to buy grilled chicken and sticky rice, eggs or somtam and sweets and everyone would eat. Chicken and eggs were rare treats, the villagers being more accustomed to fare that fashionable Bangkokians laughed at: frog and beetle and grasshopper. The men drank Lao kaow and beer, they smoked marijuana and everyone was happy and inebriated. It was like a festival.
Naturally, many of the village girls wanted to go to Krungthep with Wanida and they begged her to find them jobs as well, but it was little Preeda whom she had chosen to take back to Bangkok with her. Something about the girl, perhaps her quiet dignity, or her self-sufficient manner, attracted harum-scarum, disorganised Wanida.
“You will live with me in an apartment such as you have never seen in your life”, she told the young girl, “you will be my nong sao (little sister), all you have to do is keep the place clean and tidy, buy food for me and do the shopping when I tell you.”
Preeda had nodded excitedly. She admired the beautiful Wanida and the thought of going to live with her to share her exciting Bangkok life was almost more than she could take in. Besides, there was no work in the village and it was time she began to help her family, to provide more than a pair of hands.
“I will look after everything for you”, she assured Wanida, “you will never have to worry about another thing while I am there to take care of you.” It was a solemn promise she made, for Preeda was like that. She had always helped her mother, taken care of her younger siblings and done everything she could to assist her father.
“Good little girl”, Wanida had replied lightly, unaware of the solemnity of that promise as well as its outcome later on in their lives together.
So it was arranged. There were too many children in Preeda’s family for her parents to question her future too closely. Preeda’s mother entrusted her daughter to Wanida’s care and she did not ask what Wanida did in Bangkok, she knew well enough, she only asked that Preeda should do equally well. Again, she did not dwell on what might be the source of her daughter’s future prosperity. Her husband was well pleased at their daughter’s good fortune and he openly hoped Preeda would soon be able to help them as Wanida did her family. That was what daughters did; the boys made merit by becoming monks, the girls by supporting the family.
To give up a child for adoption or to a stranger for money, for slavery or prostitution, is a practice that is common in a community overwhelmed by its misfortunes. Preeda’s mother said, avoiding her daughter’s eyes, that it was best she went with Wanida to the city where, as she put it, she might find water from another and more plenteous well. “May you be protected”, she said and bending, she scooped up some earth and pressed it into her daughter’s hand, “may Mother Earth protect you.”
“Be good”, said Preeda’s mother to her on the day she was to leave for Bangkok. “Do only good deeds and that will protect you.” There were tears in her eyes as she tenderly arranged her daughter’s clothes and tears welled in Preeda’s eyes as well. The mother did not know whether her daughter would ever return to the village or what would become of her in the city. There were many families there who had lost all their children to the big city, who had never come back to the lives their parents and grandparents had led before them. If they were lucky, their children sent them money. But many an old parent not provided for had followed their children to the city, seeking for them and had ended their days in some wat still looking. She brushed the tears from her eyes, Preeda was not like that…
Preeda had no idea how far Bangkok was from there and she settled into her seat on the bus beside Wanida with her heart full of excited anticipation, although she felt sad at the thought of leaving her parents, her sisters and brothers behind. Who could tell when she might see them again and what might befall in the time in between. The bus that carried her away from all that was familiar droned its way to Korat, negotiating the many potholes of those rural roads, no more than red mud tracks many of them, and as she held on to the seat in front in order to prevent herself from falling off, Preeda tried on the one hand to hold on to the images of home while she tried to visualise what lay ahead in the dream city towards which they were travelling. Until that old dilapidated bus reached Korat, the landscape was familiar to Preeda’s eyes, the plateau of Esaan stretching out, dotted with old gnarled trees and tussocks of grass with the stilted wooden houses nestling among them. She knew that somewhere to the east there stood a stone shrine made long ago by the Khmer people and she would very much have liked to visit it.
From Korat they took the fast express bus to Bangkok and from that point everything began to change, the long and sinuous palms and canopied rain trees began to give place to more urban sights and Preeda looked out of the windows of the bus as they approached Bangkok and could hardly contain her excitement as the city unfolded before her. It was so large and grand with beautiful buildings, so tall that she had to crane her neck to look up at them. The people, too, looked so different, they seemed sophisticated, self confident and the women were all, in Preeda’s eyes, beautifully and smartly dressed. How would she ever fit into this grand new place, so far removed from her humble, ordinary village that lay so far away, as if it existed in another country, a different time?
Preeda settled easily into life in Bangkok with Wanida. Wanida’s apartment was in a crowded tenement block in a narrow, noisy soi full of shophouses and food stalls. The apartment was small and unattractive, but to Preeda’s unaccustomed eyes it looked very smart and modern and far removed from the rustic dwellings of her Esaan village, its small wooden houses perched on stilts beneath which the children played among the domestic animals.
Every evening, dressed up, beautiful, perfumed, Wanida went off in a tuk tuk to the nightclub in Patpong where she worked. Patpong, in the heart of Bangkok’s commercial district, is Thailand’s best known location where sex is on offer for foreign tourists. It is an area full of restaurants, bars and nightclubs where all kinds of sex shows are available: sexual intercourse and all kinds of clever tricks performed by the vagina, ‘pussy shows’ as they are called and which serve to whet the appetite of those who want more.
Patpong caters almost entirely for a foreign clientele, Wanida explained to Preeda, and the girls who work there may be bought out for sexual intercourse. There is an elaborate system of bar fines and fees for both long and short times and these are negotiated with the owner of the club. The flesh trade not only caters for foreigners but often, is run by them as well and they own clubs held and run in the name of their Thai wives. “The girls of Patpong are considered to be the most attractive in Bangkok”, Wanida said with pride.
Preeda’s routine was clear cut because she devised it like that and it revolved around Wanida and her comfort. Wanida usually returned very, very late at night and almost every night she had a man with her. The next morning she did not rise till nearly midday. Preeda would have coffee waiting and as soon as Wanida was properly awake, she would scurry downstairs to the noodle stand at the corner of the soi from where she would buy food for breakfast, a nice big bowl of congee with chicken, or maybe mixed fried noodles. While Wanida slept, Preeda crept around the apartment, cleaning, washing clothes and ironing. She would have liked to cook as well but the apartment, like so many in Bangkok, had no kitchen. It was easier and cheaper for people with not very much money to eat on the streets which is why there are food stalls almost everywhere in the city.
Quite soon after her arrival in Bangkok with Wanida, Preeda had discovered that her benefactress could be and often was both peevish and ungrateful. She rarely acknowledged the many services that Preeda gave her but at the same time, she could be unexpectedly generous and charming when she was in a good mood.
After Wanida left for Patpong, Preeda found herself with nothing to do. Venturing out into the soi, she had made friends with the owner of a noodle stand. Mae Daeng was a kindly middleaged woman who, taking a liking to the young girl, taught her all sorts of tasty ways to prepare kuaytiao of various kinds with special sauces and sometimes Preeda was allowed to help cook and serve when business was unusually heavy. There were many food stands in that area but the most popular was the noodle stand run by Mae Daeng. Daeng had been in Bangkok for a very long time, more years than she could actually remember and now, she told Preeda, she was planning to retire in a short time.
“I’m getting old and the traffic and noise are beginning to bother me. I will go back to my village and die in peace there,” she said.
Sometimes Preeda went to the apartment of a Chinese woman who lived opposite and from her she learned all kinds of Chinese delicacies. Having no kitchen in which to try these recipes out, Preeda cajoled Mae Daeng into allowing her the use of her wok. Since the dishes turned out well and the customers seemed to like them, the old woman permitted Preeda to cook and serve these dishes from her stand.
Preeda was often lonely although she shared out her day among her tasks and her friends Mae Daeng and the Chinese old woman next door. She missed the bustle of a large family, the doings of the village. She heard from her parents hardly at all and did not expect to for her mother could not write and her father would not bother himself, besides which, it was too difficult to get a letter sent from their village. Preeda was often homesick for her mother who was the kindest person she had ever known. Wanida was kind enough in her way, but she was often tired and cross and apt to take out some of her frustration on Preeda. She had also come to realise that Wanida did not always mean what she said, that she often forgot what she had promised or what proved to be inconvenient.
Nevertheless, there was affection between the two girls and Preeda felt for the older girl the loyalty of belonging to the same village. She was grateful to her for the chance she had been given and she would never dream of betraying her in any way. Wanida made it possible for her to help her family in the village and for that she would never cease to be grateful. She knew that only bad luck and misfortune awaited those who were ungrateful. Preeda never forgot to make her obeisances to the phii who resided in the spirit house outside and to all the others that she passed on the road she made a respectful wai.
Preeda had been with Wanida to The Lucky Strip Joint but she had not liked it much. She thought the dancing a -go-go the girls did was boring and she did not think much of the abbreviated costumes they wore, nor did she like the way the men behaved. But then, she would ask herself, was her life any better, scrubbing floors and running errands for Wanida, attending to her whims and fancies? Yet Wanida’s glamorous life with beautiful dresses and a different man every night somehow just did not appeal to her at all.
Then one day the routine changed somewhat. Wanida announced that she was going permanently with Khun Mike. He was a farang who had often bought Wanida out of the bar and he was generous with his money. Preeda understood that it was he who would now pay the rent and for the food and buy Wanida what she wanted. Wanida explained to Preeda that she would continue as a go-go dancer but she would not, Wanida said, go with any other man. “I love Khun Mike”, she told Preeda, “one day we will get married and go away to the States together. He has promised me that. What will you do then little one?”
“I don’t know for sure”, replied Preeda whose native caution forbade her discussing plans that were not yet finalised.
“You know that I can get you a job as a bar girl. You will get lots of tips and if you want to you can start going out with the customers, there’s more money in it if you do,” Wanida explained. They had both agreed that Preeda would never make a go- go dancer but she was pretty enough to attract men and besides, said Wanida, “a lot of farang men like dark Esaan girls: they are not like Thais who think a fair skin beautiful.” As she spoke, she admired her own fair complexion in the mirror.
“We will see”, said Preeda and did not find it necessary to add that she had no intention of doing as Wanida suggested.
True, there had been times when she had considered the possibility, when she had looked at Wanida’s clothes and jewellery, the lovely things she got from her admirers. But when she heard Wanida with her men friends, cajoling, begging almost, her accusations, tearful and often maudlin, that John or Peter or Jim did not love her enough if they wouldn’t buy her this, that or the other, she knew she could never make that her way. Preeda was independent, she did not wish to depend on any man. Most of the girls in Patpong wrote letters to their lovers in Germany, England and the States telling them of various misfortunes that had befallen their families back in the village and they received regular remittances from abroad, along with passionate letters pleading for fidelity and promises to return as soon as possible to Bangkok. Professional letter writers made a tidy income translating these letters and writing replies for the girls. Preeda supposed that the idea that they were supporting a family in Thailand made the men feel good about the other things they did while in Bangkok.
She, however, would rather be like Mae Daeng who had come like her from a northern village and had set up as a food hawker. She had managed to save enough money to get her own noodle stand and she stood on her own two feet, never depended on anyone, any man.
“Once, a long time ago,” she told Preeda, “there was a man but he was nothing but trouble and I found out I did not need him. I’ve got on very well by myself. My money is my own, hard earned and that is very satisfying.”
Preeda agreed; whenever she had a little money saved after she had sent some home to her family, she would go out and buy something for herself and her greatest satisfaction came from knowing that she had bought it with her very own money, had not needed to ask anyone. That was a special feeling. She was a frugal little person who tended to save as much as she could because she had a plan in her mind and she intended to achieve it.
Mae Daeng was soon going to sell her noodle stall and it was Preeda’s intention to buy it. For some time now she had hoarded all her money, all the tips Wanida’s men friends had given her and in addition she had gone to the neighbouring apartments and offered her services: washing up, ironing, minding the children, anything that gave her a little extra income. In another month she would have enough and then she was going to buy the noodle stall; it had to be next month because Mae Daeng’s plans for going home were now complete and she needed the money.
So absorbed was Preeda in her own plans that she failed at first to notice that Wanida was now constantly in tears. She was drinking heavily every evening and Preeda knew that she was taking drugs as well. Khun Mike had been away for some time now but he had continued to send money regularly and as far as Preeda was concerned, that was his only function because it was what ensured that Wanida in her turn paid her salary.
Khun Mike did not live in Bangkok. His job took him upcountry and also out of Thailand so he was often, more often than not, away for long periods of time. Wanida was used to that, Preeda reasoned, so this absence could not be the cause of Wanida’s tears, her bad moods, when she yelled at Preeda for no good reason.
Then one evening, Khun Mike reappeared. Wanida greeted him with joy, flinging her arms about his neck, she sat in his lap and kissed him ecstatically. She shouted for Preeda, telling her to go and buy food, lots of food for Khun Mike, all the things he liked and to bring back a large bottle of Mekhong whisky.
As Preeda turned to go she caught sight of Mike’s face and she knew that the evening was not going to be pleasant, there was trouble ahead. She heard Wanida say: “I knew you would come back, I knew you’d change your mind. You will stay, won’t you, you can’t leave me, I will kill myself.”
Mike had handed Preeda his jacket and as she took it and hung it up, his wallet fell out. Preeda picked it up and noticed two photographs among the plastic cards and money the wallet contained. She studied the photographs. One was of a young American woman who was smiling into the camera. There was something very direct about her expression. The other picture was of an elderly couple; the woman was holding a baby and the man held a little girl by the hand. Preeda examined the pictures minutely. She knew without a doubt that these were Khun Mike’s parents, wife and children. They were not especially good looking, the woman was not glamorous like Wanida, but suddenly Preeda knew that Khun Mike would not stay with Wanida and he would certainly never take her back with him to America.
Khun Mike stayed the night but when Preeda rose the next morning she knew that he had gone and it was clear that he had left Wanida. All his clothes and personal possessions had gone from the cupboard. He had left money for her on the table, as was his habit, a more than usually generous tip because it was his last. Preeda counted the money and knew that now she need wait no longer, she could buy the noodle stall at once, Mae Daeng need not worry, she would have her money and could leave for her village. The old woman had been worried that young Preeda would not be able to gather the required amount in time.
Then Wanida came into the room. Her face was gaunt, her eyes swollen with crying.
“What shall I do?” she wept, “He’s gone, he promised he would marry me and take me away to the States. He told me he loved me, but he is just like all the others…”
Preeda put her arms around Wanida and tried to comfort her but her thoughts were troubled.
“I”, she began hesitantly, “I…”
“You must never leave me, little sister,” Wanida said, “you are the only person in the whole world whom I can trust. Oh, I am such an unlucky creature, I have bad karma, why do I not just end this miserable life?”
Preeda sighed and tucked the money in her hand out of sight. The dream must remain a dream, the ambition deferred, because of her loyalty to Wanida. But everyone, she believed, had to have a dream for which they lived, which made life worth living. For her parents there had been no dream other than holding on to their bit of land but it had made them work hard to keep that strip of land which had belonged to their family for hundreds of years. Perhaps their dream now was to see their children return to that land, yet more prosperous than they were. More than ever, Preeda was determined that she would stay free, she would never enslave herself as Wanida had.
“Shall I go and get you some kafair and something nice to eat?” she asked. She had to go and tell Mae Daeng; she had to say goodbye to the noodle stall which now would never have a colourful umbrella, or shining glass shelves on which would repose all the ingredients, the eggs, the tomatoes, the bamboo shoots, the chillies and vegetables, the bowls of sauce, of nam phrik, of the special nam phrik phaow that Mae Daeng had taught her to prepare. Wanida’s dream had shattered and it had broken Preeda’s very different dream as well. But not for long; she was determined that some day her dream would come true. It was only a matter of time and patience. Meanwhile, there were promises to keep.
OLD IS GOLD
eena’s mother loved antiques. She was an avid collector, scouring old shops, chor bazaars and village markets, bringing back her trophies as triumphantly as a gundog brings back its kill. The drawing room was filled with ancient stone artefacts, statues of Siva and Ganesh, temple lamps and bells, all kinds of objets d’art whose main claim to fame was antiquity. Meena’s father sometimes said that the room looked more like a museum than a room in which to relax, but all their friends were full of admiration and some envy as they admired each new acquisition and so he generally held his peace, unless irritated after stubbing his toe on a particularly large obelisk, when he was apt to call in doubt both the object’s antiquity and his wife’s common sense.
Meena’s Paati, as she called her grandmother, was full of old stories of long ago, long before Meena was even a twinkle in anybody’s eye, a curious phrase that she had puzzled over. The stories the grandmother told were of ancient gods and goddesses and so Meena loved to play with her mother’s antiques, endless games of pretend with the figurines and statues. Meena loved her grandmother who lived with them and had done so ever since her husband, Meena’s Thatha, had died.
Paati was old and like many old people she had some irritating habits; she repeated herself incessantly, she worried needlessly (according to Meena’s mother) about trifles and she refused to part with those of her belongings for which (again according to Meena’s mother) she had no further use. But Meena loved her, loved to listen to her stories. The best thing about old stories is their retelling, their familiarity is a kind of reassurance, a sense of continuity and Meena was always reassured when she was with her grandmother.
Meena was often the bridge between grandmother and parents and in loving her, mother and grandmother were in some sense reconciled. But not for long.
Meena’s mother and father had married for love, which meant that Paati had not chosen her daughter-in-law, had not even known of her existence until her son had come home one day and told her that he was going to marry Bulbul Mehra. She had declared her opposition then and had never ceased to do so thereafter. Meena’s father had paid no heed to his mother’s strictures and all her appeals, her threat of dying on his wedding day, of going away as a sanyasin, had fallen on deaf ears and the marriage had taken place. Bulbul Mehra had become Bulbul Ramaswamy and war had been declared between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. It was a covert sort of war, a guerrilla activity that throve on slanted looks and oblique sarcasms, on long suffering sighs, resigned looks and pregnant pauses. However, all attempts by wife and mother to involve Sankar Ramaswamy in these skirmishes failed because Sankar was a man adept at avoiding involvement, who had raised detachment to a fine art.
Then Meena had arrived and Paati had become besotted, although she had repined as a mother-in-law must, that her daughter-in-law, as might have been expected, had been unable to produce a son and heir for the family. However, this deficiency had been remedied and that was one insult that had to be removed from Paati’s arsenal. Not that she lacked for others to take its place, but between Paati and Meena the bond had only strengthened.
Paati was a Madras Brahmin who had come to live in Delhi when her husband was employed there and she had stayed on after his death to live with her son. She had dreamed of the daughter-in-law she would have: a pretty, well behaved girl who knew all the old customs, who spoke Tamil and who would be like a daughter to her, the daughter she had never had, for her little baby girl Hema had died soon after birth. But it had not happened; instead, Sankar had brought home Bulbul Mehra. Pretty enough, his mother conceded, but a Punjabi, an alien. “Ai-aiyo!” she had exclaimed, “is there no one else you could find? So many good fine girls I would have found for you from Madras or Madurai, but no, this Punjabi girl it had to be. Not even very fair! My nieces Janaki and Menaka are fairer than she is.” Sankar had not even deigned to reply to this and in a manner characterised by his mother as most unfilial, he had told her that she just had to make the best of a bad job. At least, that was how she phrased it; what Sankar had actually said was: “Amma, you’ll just have to lump it.”
Naturally, having heard from Sankar of his mother’s opposition to the marriage, when Bulbul came she was not kindly disposed towards her mother-in-law and the older woman lived with them largely on sufferance. Sankar, too, found his mother exasperating and quite soon after his marriage had begun describing her as ‘difficult’. Bulbul, of course, used rather stronger terms and Mrs Ramaswamy, with tears in her eyes, said that when a son married he was lost to his mother. If Sankar called his mother difficult, that was nothing to what she called Bulbul. To her south Indian confidantes, Mrs Ramaswamy said: “She is a typical Punjabi, always thinking of ways to make money in order to spend more. She fills Sankar’s ears with stories and he has not the courage to stand up to her, he does exactly as she says.”
Her friends sympathised. “Daughters-in-law are like that. All sweetness and charm till they have got what they want and then they show their real selves. What chance do we mothers have? Aiyo! It is a curse to have only sons, I tell you.”
Meena wondered about this when she heard it for it seemed to her that everybody she knew in the adult world wanted sons (even her own beloved parents) and hadn’t her grandmother said bad things to her mother when she was born? In the tales Paati told, people were always wishing other people a hundred sons at the very least.
Meena was reaching that age when she noticed things and took stock of them. She pondered over what she heard and even more over what she overheard, which was vastly more interesting because it was usually things that people didn’t want her to know.
One day, there was a particularly bitter fight between her mother and grandmother, after Bulbul had stormed from the house, returning hours later with her latest purchase, a beautiful old piece of tapestry, torn in places, but still gleaming and intricate in its workmanship.
Watching her mother handle the piece, so carefully, so reverently, smiling to herself over its beauty, seeming to ignore the tears in the fabric, the soiled parts, Meena was suddenly overwhelmed by the mystery of it all.
“Mama”, she said, “that’s an old piece of cloth, it’s not too clean and its torn all over.”
“That’s the beauty of it”, replied her mother, “in spite of all the defects, it is beautiful and it is so old.”
Meena looked from her mother to where her grandmother sat in her rocking chair, her lips moving as she recited from the scriptures. Were only old things wonderful, she wondered, not people?
A BRIDEGROOM FOR OMANA
mana means darling, the loved one and she never had cause to doubt her parents’ love for her. Parents are supposed to love their children unconditionally; but despite the Malayalam saying that every mother crow thinks her baby crow the whitest, it probably helps if the child also happens to be good-looking, clever and a source of pride. Omana was certainly a beautiful girl and in the beginning, her fair skin and extraordinary good looks were certainly her parents’ pride.
Cherian and Chella, Omana’s parents, were not rich people. All they had, her father often said, was their good name and it was clearly understood by all concerned that this good name rested firmly with the children. It was their responsibility to maintain it, but even more important, they were expected to restore it to its former glory. The boys by their hard work and the girls by marriage.
The Wadakeveetil family to which they belonged, had once been an illustrious name in central Travancore, or so family legend had it. But now in modern Kerala, the family had fallen on hard times because Cherian’s great grandfather had been forced to sell most of their supposedly vast land holdings. Now they managed as best they might on income earned from their coconuts and other produce, eked out by Cherian’s small earnings from his job as a government clerk in the nearby town of Mavelikara.
As Omana began to grow up, her mother started to worry about her. Omana was a strikingly good-looking girl, both fair skinned and sharp featured and she drew people’s attention.
“It is so easy,” said Chella to her husband and to sundry relatives, “for a girl to lose her good name and then what is to become of her?”
“You must marry her off soon”, replied the relatives who were always ready with plenty of advice for all occasions, “marry her off before it is too late.”
They eyed Omana’s burgeoning body and Chella said sharply to her daughter: “Where is your kavani, girl? Cover yourself up before you go out of the house.”
“Marry her off while she is still fresh and pretty,” the relatives chorused lugubriously, as they viewed Omana’s departing figure, swaying gently as she went off to school. “Marry her off while she is young and still malleable.” “While she is still young and fresh, before the dreams die”, added another, known sometimes as the woman who never smiled.
“But what of the dowry?” Chella’s voice was mournful, “people are asking such big-big dowries these days and where shall we find money like that?”
It was a time in Kerala when many more young men than ever before were going forth from their native land to seek opportunity elsewhere, to become doctors, engineers and government officers and the more they earned, the higher the dowry that was demanded. The parents of doctors, for instance, argued that the investment in seven years of education had to be recompensed. Girls too, were educated (after all, Kerala leads the world in literacy) but this only increased the dowry they had to pay; because everybody knows that too much education gives people ideas and girls, too highly educated, can prove troublesome in marriage.
The Syrian Christian church was fully cognisant of the dowry system. Aware of the desperate attempts of poor families with daughters to marry to raise sufficient dowry, the church had even organised some seminars to discuss the evils of the dowry system. The dowry transaction, however, was endorsed by the church which received a tenth of the stipulated sum as its tithe.
Cherian, try as he might, mortgaging the land, liquidating all his savings, taking a loan on his provident fund, could not raise much more than Rs. 10,000. The least amount of gold jewellery that would have to be given to the bride, to be worn in church, would cost at least Rs. 40,000. He knew that most people paid dowries in lakhs of rupees not in thousands and placed an armoury of gold on their daughters’ persons.
What was to be done? He and his wife looked at each other in despair. Meanwhile, Omana was growing up and as might be expected, her extraordinary good looks were attracting attention. Young men in the neighbourhood began to send her love letters and ardent poems (always intercepted by her vigilant mother) and men stood outside the house and gave vent to their emotions by whistling and catcalling as soon as she appeared.
Nobody could say that Omana did anything to encourage these manifestations; she was, her mother always insisted, a good girl who went to school and returned home “looking neither to left nor to right,” her mother said, “but we all know how people talk. Without doing anything her name will be spoilt and then what will become of us?”
The only solution, it seemed to Chella and Cherian, was to marry their beautiful daughter off quickly and so the question of the dowry needed to accomplish this became a matter of great urgency to them. It was at this juncture that Mariama who acted as a matchmaker, came to the house. She came, as was her wont, at lunch time and Chella was glad that something had prompted her to kill a chicken and that there was plenty of kootan to eat with the rice and curry.
After the usual preliminaries, which consisted of plying Mariama with food until she declared herself unable to eat another morsel, no, not even a bit more banana and yoghurt with the special treacle, Omana’s parents waited to hear the purpose for her visit . Mariama was not to be hurried. Preparing her tobacco for chewing, she settled her considerable girth comfortably on a mat and regarded her hosts with benevolence. They were on tenterhooks for they knew that Mariama’s visit was connected with matrimony and they wondered what proposal she was about to divulge.
Mariama took her time over the preparation of her tobacco. She knew very well that her audience was eager to hear what she had to say and a little suspense only added spice to liven the dish she was about to serve.
“Well”, said she when she had judged that the tobacco and the moment had arrived, “I have some very good news for you. Never let it be said that I do not look out for my old friends.”
She paused and Chella quickly chimed in: “Of course, we know what a good friend you are to us.”
Nodding complacently, Mariama continued: “You know Verghese Vakil?”
This was a purely rhetorical question because everybody knew the lawyer in question. He lived in the next town and although retired, he was successful, he was rich and he came from an old and very wealthy family.
Mariama settled herself more cosily, contentedly chewing. “I have very good news for you. I spoke to them about our Omana, I told them what a beautiful girl she is and so fair.”
“I thought all his children were well settled”, said Cherian.
Mariama smiled, she loved to be the bearer of news. “Yes indeed, all the older children are, as you say, well settled, but there is their youngest boy and when I told them of our Omana and what a good girl she is, they were very interested.”
“Yes, she is a good girl”, said Cherian, as Mariama paused, “her mother takes very good care to see to that, but what exactly is it you are saying? ”
Mariama, however, was not to be rushed, it was her story and she would tell it in her own way and at her own pace. “Verghese Vakil has many children as you know and they are all well settled in life but there is this boy, Mani, their youngest child and it is for him they are seeking a bride. Unlike the others, he stays at home and helps his father and he will inherit the house and property.”
“How is it we have have never heard of this boy”? Cherian asked.
Mariama sighed gustily. “As a child he was delicate and his mother doted on him so he was kept at home and educated privately. He is a very good boy, very gentle and affectionate and one day, after his father’s time, he will be a rich man. And that time is not far away for both Verghese Vakil and his wife are in poor health.”
She paused and busied herself with her tobacco pouch and implements and without looking up, she asked: “Do you wish me to negotiate for you?”
Cherian and Chella looked at each other; there was no doubt that they were interested…such a wealthy family, such a good name. Chella looked down and muttered: “But they will want a very big dowry suited to their status.”
“We will give whatever we can,” her husband gruffly interjected, “our girl will not come empty handed.”
“But that is the beauty of it!” Mariama exclaimed. “Verghese Vakil wants not one chakram in dowry. All that they want is a gentle, good and beautiful girl who will make their son a loving wife and look after him when they have gone.” This was accompanied by another gusty sigh.
Chella looked long and hard at her husband. This was just too good to be true, her look said, there is something very wrong here. Nobody in their right senses, least of all the parents of suitable boys, offered something for nothing.
Cherian, long accustomed to reading his wife’s looks, interpreted it correctly and it reflected his own thoughts. So he said: “We need time to think this over and when we have come to a decision we will let you know.”
“Don’t think too long, Cheria,” said Mariama as she heaved herself upright and gathered her belongings in readiness for departure, “that family can take its pick of girls and no trouble.” She stood up and smoothed down her mundu, sighing and wheezing. “I came here first because of my great regard for you and I know you have been worried about Omana, but I have other houses to visit.”
After her departure, Cherian and Chella discussed the matter. There was no doubt that they regarded it as something in the nature of a windfall but they were cautious.
“It would be a very prestigious connection”, Cherian said.
Chella agreed. “But”, she said, “something is not right. Why would Verghese Vakil not take any dowry? We must see the boy and make sure all is well.”
“I don’t know”, answered her husband, a touch impatiently, “perhaps they are enlightened people who think all this dowry business is wrong.”
His wife snorted her ridicule. “Only the parents of girls think like that”, she said, “not the parents of eligible boys. After all, when it comes to our boys’ turn we will be asking for dowry.”
Husband and wife agreed, however, that it would be prudent if they made a visit to the neighbouring town of Changanacheri where Verghese Vakil lived. “Better to see for ourselves before we tell Mariama anything”, they agreed.
Although no longer a practising lawyer, having retired long since, he was still known by that title. Both he and his wife were elderly; Mani had obviously been an afterthought, the child of their later years.
When they arrived at the house, Cherian and Chella were pleased to see that it was a palatial residence with every evidence of considerable prosperity. They were treated like honoured guests and plied with food. Chella noted that there were at least three different kinds of fish in addition to both chicken and beef. It was a lavish spread and they were flattered to be so well received..
At last, the time came for them to see the boy. Mani was brought in and introduced to them. He seemed very bashful, hanging his head and smiling shyly but gradually as they asked him questions, put him at his ease, he began to speak more naturally. He smiled a lot and appeared to be very affectionate to his parents. He had not studied much, having left school before entering his teens.
“His health was not good so we kept him at home”, his mother explained, caressing his cheek, “and after all, he is not going to work anywhere, he does not God be praised, need to earn a living, what does he need so much education for?”
“Omana is a very good student”, said Cherian.
There was no response to this remark.
“We only want our son to be happy”, said Verghese Vakil, who did not himself look very happy, “we are looking for a girl who will look after Mani and care for him after we are gone. Neither my wife nor I are in very good health. We would like an early marriage and the girl is our only consideration, we have no need for dowry.”
Cherian did not look at his wife, he looked at nobody as he said “Well then, it is agreed. We shall give you our Omana.”
All the way home his wife harangued him. “Do you think you should have agreed so quickly? Why did you not wait to discuss it with me?
We should have asked more questions, talked to more people, found out more about the boy.”
“What more do you want to find out? You can see how rich they are and what nice well mannered people. The boy may not be very clever but he seemed to me a good gentle boy. Every day you say how worried you are about Omana, that you are afraid of all these fellows who write her poems and letters and hang around the house and now when we have such a proposal, beyond our wildest hopes, no dowry to find, you are unsure!”
“You are right I suppose”, Chella conceded, “it’s just that…” she halted, reluctant to put her unease into words. There had been something about Mani that had troubled her: his childlike manner, his rather shambling gait and a certain vacancy in his eyes on the few occasions he had allowed them to encounter hers. Yet perhaps it was all in her imagination, for her husband stoutly maintained that he had seen nothing amiss. “He may be no Einstein but he seemed a nice boy to me.”
When they got home it was to find Omana arranging flowers in a vase and as they entered Chella’s sharp eyes detected her daughter whisking a piece of paper out of sight. She was instantly alert.
“What is that you just tucked into your skirt and where did these flowers come from?” she demanded.
Omana looked fearful and tried to leave the room without answering. Her mother barred her way and held out her hand, her expression grim. Omana burst into tears and handed over the paper. It was the usual thing, a poem on Omana’s beauty, but it ended by asking her to meet him, the poet, after school the next day.
“So this is how you carry on when we are not at home is it?” her mother demanded angrily and slapped her daughter’s face. “I have tried to save you from bad ways but it seems you have been deceiving me. Well, I shall not try to protect you any more. It is best you are married off quickly before you bring shame on our heads.” The look she gave her husband told him that she was now agreeable to the marriage.
Parents seemed to consider marriage be a panacea for all ills for both sons and daughters.
Poor Omana begged and pleaded; she swore that she had never had any intention of meeting anyone after school, that she had only secreted the note to prevent her mother from worrying, but it did her no good. The marriage proposal went through and in a very short time Omana was married to Mani.
Not that Omana was averse to marriage, it was something she had always thought of as inevitable but thrilling and the prospect had excited her. She had looked forward to the day she would be married, obviously to someone who would be handsome, charming and loving. But there was something about this proposal that had frightened her. Omana, in the days before the wedding, had tried to get her mother to tell her about Mani, but she had been very evasive and uncharacteristically unwilling to talk, although both she and Cherian had expatiated about the house and the wealth of the family. Perhaps it was because she detected pitying looks from some of her friends. She had caught a couple of cousins sniggering about the wedding and they had refused to tell her why.
At the wedding, Omana looked beautiful. During the ceremony she was aware of the bridegroom’s eyes on her and sometimes he tried to touch her.
Now, after the ceremony, as Omana looked into Mani’s eyes and saw his shambling walk, his air of an overgrown schoolboy, she became aware of the reason for her parents reticence and she was soon left in no doubt that she had been married to an imbecile. He was an overgrown child but it was not a child she wanted. Out of all the men in the world who would have wanted to marry her, they had found her this child-man. Omana never spoke to her parents again.
His mother confided to Omana that they had hoped that marriage would do for him what the doctors had been unable to accomplish. Marriage, the miracle cure. Mani’s parents died happy in the belief that their son was happy and cared for.
Mani was loving and gentle and he adored his beautiful wife, treating her like a precious toy that might break if handled roughly, but this did not endear him to Omana. She could not bear to have him near her but she knew that she must never reveal this fact to anyone. She took good care of Mani and everyone remarked on how happy he was. She let him play his childish games at the well, teasing the maidservants and she never prevented him from climbing trees or hanging upside down from the high walls around the house.
Omana had many children and unkind people were apt to say that not one of them resembled Mani. Then, one day, Mani was found floating in the well. Omana, griefstricken but dry eyed, said how often she had begged Mani to be careful, not to hang around the well.
There were those who said that Mani had been pushed, but then there are those sorts of people everywhere in the world. Was it Omana’s revenge and if so, who really was to blame?
Sometimes, when I look out of my bedroom window, if the light is right, I can make myself believe that I am back home in India; that just out of sight somewhere to the left, my father’s wheat fields lie and beyond that, the river where my girl friends and I bathed and played silly games. Sometimes I can even persuade myself that I can hear the wind sighing in the peepul trees andthe whisper of the ripe wheat as it responded to the wind’s games. Then, I hear the siren on police car or ambulance as they rush past and those sounds, all too familiar where I live, tell me unequivocally that I am in London, that India and the wheat fields of my native Punjab lie far away. I turn away from the window with a sigh and hear my mother-in-law in the room beyond calling in her querulous voice: “Has that girl not got up yet? Always, she is mooning about….hai Bhagwan! What to do with her?”
Quickly, guiltily, I pull my dupatta round me and go to the kitchen to make the early morning tea for which my husband’s mother waits.
My husband Balvindar Singh will turn to me, his manner impatient: “Hurry up now”, he hisses, “you know Mataji likes her tea sharp at 6.30 and it is almost that now.”
“It is hardly 6 o’clock yet”, I respond carelessly while I try to make Balvindar’s eyes meet mine; because only in the exchange of glances, a snatched moment of intimacy in a public place, can I make myself believe that he belongs to me, this man, my husband.
“Don’t argue”, Balvindar might respond; a close observer would have noticed a note of appeal in his voice, the anxious look he cast in his mother’s direction.
“Don’t argue!” that lady would echo mockingly. “Arre baba, this is today’s girl you are talking to! Everyone knows that today’s girls want only to dress up and lead their husbands around by the nose. To avoid this, I chose a girl from India, one not spoilt by western ways, but I see she has learnt quickly.”
Safely out of view, as she thought, Premjit would pantomime leading Balvindar by the nose, or in some other way, mock her mother-in-law’s words. Throwing her shawl around her, the old lady would rise and follow Premjit into the kitchen and often, would catch her making faces behind the door.
Not long after her marriage Premjit had discovered that Balvindar became another person when his mother was in the room. The person who made love to her at night, said strange things in her ear, brought her sweets tucked out of sight, to be secretly consumed, disappeared almost without trace when he left their bedroom. Balvindar, when with his family, turned into a dour young man who constantly (and loudly) urged her to take better care of his mother, whose eyes avoided her bold glances; worst of all, he never stood up for her when Mataji made her disparaging remarks.
Premjit had come all alone to England to be married because, after her parents had found all the money necessary for the marriage, bought the extravagant trousseau, the sets of jewellery specified by the bridegroom’s mother, there had not been much money left for airfares. Alone at her wedding to a stranger in a strange land, her first sight of her husband had been at the nuptials. He had been dressed in silk and from behind her spangled red and gold veil hung with strings of tinsel and flowers, his face had been hidden from her view.
Premjit’s girl friends in the Punjab had envied her this great adventure, this marriage in England, a sort of magic land filled with magnificent shops, the like of which were not to be found even in Bombay or Delhi and unimaginable in Madanpur.
“You will be free there to do as you like”, her friends had told her, ” everything will be different. You will live the life of a memsahib.” They had all giggled delightedly over the picture this had conjured up in their minds. Poring over old magazines, they had imagined Premjit dressed in some outlandish costume out shopping or in a smart kitchen full of modern up-to-date gadgets. The more of such ‘gadgets’ one had, the more well off one could be said to be.
Although she had been bemused by what she had seen of London, so far a cry it had been from the village of Madanpur, yet Premjit found little difference from what might have been her existence had she married someone in her native Punjab. Nothing English seemed to have touched Mataji who, like many a reluctant expatriate, had clung the more firmly to old ways and customs. She allowed her daughters and daughters-in-law little personal liberty and her sons consulted her in all matters.
Balvindar’s father had set up a clothing business, a family affair that was operated from the house he had bought. After his death, the sons and sons-in-law had carried on the business with the formidable Mataji at their head. She had not grown up in Britain, but had come from her village in India to join her husband after he had established himself in London.
The family’s empire consisted of the clothing business with the sewing rooms at the top of the house, while on the ground floor the daughters and daughters-in-law ran a grocery store, one that unlike its neighbours, never closed on Sundays or holidays.
Young Premjit, used to the freedom of her parents’ house, where she had wandered at will with her playmates, cosseted by her father because she was his only daughter, her husband’s home in London seemed sometimes like a prison. All the time, operating the sewing machine upstairs, cutting up vegetables in the kitchen, or serving in the grocery store downstairs, Premjit dreamed of home, of India. But home, the village of Madanpur, was very far away and this was increasingly made clear to her when, infrequently, her parents wrote letters full of admonitions about her duty to her new family, warning her to be a good wife and to forget all about them. Brought up in a society that believed the parents of a married daughter had no rights in her home, not entitled to so much as a glass of water there, Premjit accepted the fact that this was the only home she had. Emotionally, however, she yearned for the carefree days of girlhood, sighing as she went about the day’s work.
Balvindar’s brothers’ wives offered her no sympathy; they were much older, they had children and concerns of their own; they had been through their own rites of passage in the matrimonial house and they had survived. As for Balvindar’s sisters, Premjit knew instinctively that she should not confide in them for they constantly watched and reported back to their mother all that they saw, heard or merely suspected. Balvindar was aware of his young bride’s unhappiness, she had even asked him if they could not move into a house of their own and the suggestion had horrified him.
Mataji had informed her son that Premjit was moody; warning him to be firm with his wife, she had said: “Right from the beginning let her know who is the boss. Don’t put up with any nonsense. Once the girl has borne a child she will begin to be sensible. Trust me, son, until then she will try her tricks on you, sighing and moaning, and make your life a misery.”
Balvindar believed his mother, he always had; in any case, he had little experience of dealing with young women, so he ignored Premjit’s sighs, told her how lucky she was to be living in London with colour TV, running hot and cold water, a gas cooker, electric kettle, even a vacuum cleaner, so that she never had to sweep the floors with just an old broom the way they did in India.
But Premjit looked out of the window and sighed at the grey skies and the incessant rain. Strange thoughts and longings came to her; she remembered how, when she was little and the first rain fell, she had run out in just her knickers and smelt the wonderful scent of the parched earth as it soaked up the water for which through the hot dry summer it had waited.
But here it never stopped raining and Premjit fancied that the rain fell like soft tears. She longed for the robust sunlight, the green and gold of the wheat fields of home.
She grew bored with the sewing and began to make careless mistakes, always discovered by Balvindar’s sisters who carried them to Mataji. At first the old lady had been elaborately patient, helping to rectify the mistakes. Then, as she grew increasingly impatient with Premjit’s dreamy ways, she watched her closely, always on hand to draw attention to a loose thread or uneven hem.
Premjit began to feel herself a prisoner in that tall cold house where the curtains were always kept closed because, Mataji said, ‘we do not want strangers watching us, outsiders looking in.’
It mattered little, it seemed to Premjit, whether she was in the kitchen patting out dozens of chapatis, or in the grocery store weighing out spices, basmati rice or lentils, always she felt the disapproving eyes of mother-in-law or sisters-in-law perpetually upon her.
Premjit was unused both to hard work and the words that fell to her lot in this household. Petted and even a little spoiled by her parents, used to being admired for her cleverness and good looks, Premjit now found herself totally at a loss. Instead of pacifying Mataji and ingratiating herself with the other members of the family, as her mother would have suggested, she went out of her way to show that she cared for no one’s opinion.
Only in their bedroom at night could Premjit relax, only when she was alone with Balvindar, when he put his arms around her, called her loving names, only in his admiration for her face and body, did Premjit come alive. Like most well brought up Indian girls, she had no experience of men other than of her family. The intimate relationship with a young man whose eyes never left her body, whom a touch could transform, was very heady.
Alone in the bedroom, Premjit would wear the beautiful clothes her mother had made for her and for which now there seemed little occasion. She would don her jewellery and wear the satins and chiffons, rich red, pink and green, sequinned, spangled with silver and gold thread, the salwars, kurtas and sarees which loving parents, thinking of their little girl who was to go far away from home, had given her. It was her only escape and she made the most of it.
As time passed, Premjit became less and less amenable to Mataji’s strictures and demands. It seemed to her that as no love was demonstrated by the old lady, her demands could for the most part be ignored and in any case, Premjit thought, were both unreasonable and tyrannical. Why, for instance, were she and Balvindar never allowed time together except in their bedroom? Premjit longed to go out with her husband, perhaps to the cinema, maybe to a restaurant, even just a walk down the road. Instead, everywhere they went some or all of the family went with them and in any case, they rarely went anywhere interesting, just to the gurdwara or for a sangeet. Sometimes when they all sallied forth to visit some relative, usually to condole, sometimes to rejoice, Premjit would peer out at the places they passed and wonder about them. She watched young couples saunter in and out of places of amusement, caught glimpses of coloured and flashing lights, heard loud music and yearned for Balvindar and herself to be one of that throng. Once or twice she had tried cajoling him to take her to these places she had seen. She had soon discovered that he was in a good mood just before he made love to her and soon after that, as long she did not wait too long, for then he turned over and fell quickly to sleep.
“Couldn’t you take me to see a movie? Just you and me?” she pleaded. “Then we could go and have dinner in a restaurant and maybe try our luck on those machines you told me about.”
At first Balvindar had smiled and said “maybe” and “let us see”, but then he began to ignore her requests, turned on his side and went to sleep. Accordingly, Premjit hardened her heart against Mataji because she knew her mother-in-law was responsible for Balvindar’s attitude, pouring poisoned words in his ears.
More time passed and Premjit showed no sign of becoming pregnant and now her mother-in-law became openly hostile. She never failed to find fault with Premjit and made it a point to show her up in front of Balvindar. All day long it was: “This wife of yours cannot even be bothered to make a decent cup of tea for your old mother”; or: “See this stitching, with my failing eyesight I have to re-do all her work!”
Every month the old woman questioned her eagerly and each time Premjit shook her head in negative, Mataji would tighten her lips and glance pityingly at her son. “Arre, son, what is one to do? God only knows how much I long to hold my youngest son’s first son in my arms before I die, but at this rate I fear that will never be.”
Premjit had not particularly wanted a baby, not right away, because she had wanted to have some fun first and get to know her husband better. It was possible, she knew, that her own mother might not approve of this attitude, that she would have wanted her to produce a child and that one a son, as soon as possible.
Once, before the marriage, Premjit and her mother had sat in the sun outside in the courtyard and her mother, busily oiling and plaiting her hair, had said: “It is only after you have your first child that you truly belong to your husband’s family and when your son is born you become a real person who cannot easily be set aside by anyone.”
Premjit did nothing to prevent conception and at first was undismayed by her failure to become pregnant. That was in the early days when she was beginning to sense her power over her husband. If she refused him he became eager, pleading with her. She liked to tantalize him with glimpses of her body, innocently provocative as she undressed and with very satisfying results.
Premjit had wanted to show her power over Balvindar in public, especially to his mother and so she had begun, slowly and carefully at first, to try and undermine the old woman’s influence over her son. By dint of withheld pleasure she had made Balvindar sometimes take her side against his mother and on the few occasions that this occurred, Premjit had smiled triumphantly and rewarded her husband generously. However, it was too much to expect that he would give in entirely to his wife and stand up against his mother and soon enough it became clear that the mother had weapons enough of her own which she was not slow to bring forth from her armoury. When crossed, she became a weak, helpless old woman whose own flesh and blood was turning against her; a widow whom no one wanted, fit only to die. Balvindar had always been a good son and as the youngest he had a special bond with his mother which made it difficult for him to stand up for his wife if that meant (and it always did) being disloyal to an idolised mother.
Balvindar soon tired of the conflict and he began to avoid both wife and mother as much as possible with the result that the two women hated each other increasingly. The kitchen, the sewing rooms, the store, all became battle fields where sometimes one and then the other won the skirmishes. Premjit, however, was unable to enjoy these battles as she once had, because she was no longer able to demonstrate her power over her husband who had become adept at vanishing at the first trumpet call.
She had another reason for disquiet. Someone had left a Punjabi magazine open on her bed and when she took it up to read she found that it was an article about brides in India who had been burned to death by their husbands’ families, either because the dowry was unsatisfactory or because the girl had failed to produce a child. When Premjit questioned Balvindar, he shook his head and said it had not been he who had brought the magazine into their room; but it was, he said, one that was read by all the women in the house.
“It is time we thought of having a baby”, Premjit said to Balvindar that night.
“Well”, he responded, “I have done nothing to prevent it, so it seems there must be something wrong and you should see a doctor. Mataji will arrange it.”
“I will go to the doctor if you come with me”, was Premjit’s reply, “let them check both of us for I am sure there is nothing wrong with me.”
This made Balvindar angry. “Are you suggesting then that the fault is mine?” he asked.
“It is no one’s fault if there are no babies”, Premjit said, “would you not care for me if I could not have a child?”
Balvindar turned towards his wife and as he looked at her his mother’s words came into his head: “Premjit is a girl who wants to lead her husband by the nose. For her, she is the only one that matters and if you do not take care my son, you will soon be nothing but her slave.”
He turned away from Premjit and snapped: “I am tired and do not wish to hear your foolish talk.”
They lay one on each side of the bed that night, as far from each other as its width would permit. Balvindar had soon slept and as he buried his head in the pillow, his breathing had become stertorous. Premjit lay awake, listening and she was afraid, although exactly why she did not know. She was far away from home, in the midst of strangers who cared nothing for her and she had no one to whom she might turn for advice or help. Unable to sleep, she rose quietly and took up the magazine she had earlier found left open for her to read. Once again, she scanned the article, all about the young women who had been burned alive because their in-laws had not liked what they had got, because all the things promised by a desperate father marrying off his daughter had not materialized once the daughter was, as they thought, safely married.
Premjit riffled the pages and her eye fell on the problem page. Many of the young women who had written letters seemed to have the same problem as she: they did not get on with their mothers-in-law and wanted to know what they could do about it, how they might persuade their husbands to live separately from the parents. The answer was always the same, your husband’s mother should be like your own mother and after marriage one’s mother-in-law became one’s mother.
Premjit threw the magazine down in disgust. Mataji could never be a mother to her, she had quite clearly demonstrated that and now she made no bones about her dislike. The trouble was that Premjit’s own parents were thousands of miles away and every letter made it clear that they could neither help nor interfere in their daughter’s life. “It is too soon for you to come on holiday to us,” her mother had written. “If you were expecting it would have been a different matter. You must try and please your mother-in-law. Do as she asks, otherwise you will only be unhappy.”
‘Well’, she thought, `I am unhappy and what shall I do about that?’ She had hoped so much to be happy, had looked forward with much excitement to marriage, to England. Yet here she was now, little more than a drudge in a joint family no different from any in India. Britain was not her country, had not become her country and she lived as an alien knowing little or nothing of its ways, desperately curious but denied admission into its society. Feeling alien, her nostalgia for India grew into an obsession, and she believed passionately that she could know no real happiness until she was home again or in a house of her own.
Premjit shivered with the cold and grew melancholy when it sleeted. When the wind howled round the house, keening at the windows, she lay on her bed and pulled the embroidered razai she had brought from home over her head. The grey skies were oppressive, seeming to press down on her, making it difficult for her to breathe. Mataji declared that it was time she was taken to see a doctor. “It would not surprise me”, Premjit heard her tell a daughter, “if they find something very wrong with her. I blame myself for having arranged this marriage, as soon as I saw her I knew it would be no good but it was too late.”
Premjit was taken to see a doctor and in the course of things it soon emerged that it was highly unlikely that she would ever bear children. When she heard this and saw the naked hostility in Mataji’s eyes, the bewilderment on Balvindar’s face, something snapped within her. She began to scream hysterically, to say that they all hated her, that they wished her dead. Balvindar begged her to calm herself, not to say stupid things, but when Premjit looked through her tears into her husband’s mother’s face she saw that what she had said was true.
She grew very thin and pale, she complained all the time of being very cold, yet she never liked to go near the fire. She became very quiet and withdrawn, no longer speaking rudely to her mother-in-law, nor trying to win over her husband. Premjit wrote one letter home and then ceased to write. In that letter she asked that when she died she should be allowed to come home, her body cremated there and the ashes thrown where she had played as a child and been happy.
Perhaps it was this letter that put the idea into her head, but from that time Premjit became convinced that she was going to be burnt alive like all those other unhappy brides in the Punjab. She knew it was going to happen because she had heard Mataji talking and every time she mentioned Premjit’s name it was to say that she was careless when she did the cooking; that she never tied her dupatta properly; that she allowed the hot oil to splash when she fried pooris; that she cooked on too high a flame and everyone knew how dangerous gas could be. Premjit knew the stage was being set, and when she was discovered dead, burnt by a flame eagerly licking at an intransigent dupatta, they would all be free. Balvindar would marry again, Mataji would have a more amenable daughter-in-law and she, Premjit, would be free at last to go home.
Who I am is not important. I am the conduit through which flows this story, those ancient things that cast a deep shadow over our lives. Since then, the world has changed, yet many things remain astonishingly the same. Man has walked on the moon, they have babies in test tubes, but for most people, women like me, nothing much changes.
Pain, loss, disappointment, frustration, these do not alter with time, although their edge may be blunted. The bird that calls from the mango tree outside my window seems to be saying ‘it is finished,’ but others hear it call ‘is the jackfruit salted?’
Sara was my maternal grandmother, although my mother barely knew her and I never did. Sara died young when the camera was a rarity and people did not take pictures as they do nowadays. Only a few ancient photographs survive, one on her wedding day, another with her husband and three children just before her death. I have scanned it often, seeking to see death’s hand on her shoulder. Surely death sends some forerunner to announce its arrival, as the tendrils of a creeper, advancing insidiously, takes a stranglehold?
Its sepia tones fading, it is an unsmiling portrait, because photography was a serious business in those days. I can imagine that photographer with his cumbersome equipment, posing and re-posing his subjects until spontaneity was leached from them and they stood stockstill like statues, their expressions frozen forever. Then diving under his black cloth like a subterranean explorer, a whirring noise ensued which caused a faint surprise to imbue the features of my ancestors; a raised eyebrow there, a mouth slightly open here.
There are those who flesh out the face of a wanted person, a criminal whom they have never seen, by linking disparate descriptions. That is the way I have drawn Sara from the hints dropped by the people who knew her.
Most remember her only in the light of what they considered her wrong-doing and they most want to remember her as an ordinary woman, casting no shadow. Respectability is all.
Sometimes, as I wandered through the old house where she lived, I became confused. Am I Sara? I was named for her, are not all women one really? Those whose lives are lived in a small space, forced to grow inwards, do not flash out in the brilliant light of individuality.
In my family, the past never goes away; it coexists comfortably with the present and even makes brief forays into the future. The dead and gone never truly depart, are constantly recalled, usually as examples of goodness and virtue, but sometimes (as in the case of Sara) as a warning. So my mother, who never really knew Sara, tells me: “You are too much like your grandmother, she was headstrong like you and see where that led…”. Always such remarks tailed off into a gusty sigh leaving much unsaid. Where did my grandmother’s headstrong nature lead her? But nobody will say. It seemed to me that whenever anyone mentioned Sara, they all sighed in that theatrical manner. This may have been what whetted my appetite to learn more about my mysterious ancestor. Or maybe it was only when I became unhappy that I looked for clues in Sara’s life. It had become obvious by then that she had been unhappy, had she indeed, ever been happy?
Well, they say that when she died it was with a smile on her face. She must have died painfully, but all the family are sure that when they came to lay her out, a beatific smile irradiated her face.
My relatives never miss a funeral, even those of people they did not know well, for whom they had cared nothing in their lifetime. I have been to funerals where they take group photographs with the corpse. Death becomes almost enjoyable and the family weeps more noisily. Everybody looks long and critically at the body before they bend to kiss the dead face. What are they looking for?
Sara’s wedding picture posed her standing stiffly behind her husband who sits in an elaborately carved chair dressed in the European fashion, frock coated, a large watch chained around his stomach. Both of them, bride and bridegroom, are rigidly attentive; only Sara’s large dark eyes stare out of yellowing sepia with an intensity that owes nothing to a long dead photographer’s art.
According to the family story tellers, Sara was fourteen when she married and they remember this because it was in those days an advanced age to marry. By that age most girls were mothers and some had even become widows.. Sara’s marriage was delayed because she had a stepmother disinclined to bestir herself and matchmaking, everyone knows, is women’s work.
The bridegroom was a medical student and a few short months later he departed for England to gain his MBBS. Sara was left behind with his family for his mother to mould to their ways. She was meant to be the anchor to keep her husband safe from temptation while he sojourned in a strange land.
Nobody thought that it might be Sara, lonely and stranded in a house full of strangers, who might need an anchor. People never think of women in that way. From what I remember of my grandfather, the leave-taking between him and Sara must have been stiff and formal, not only because the eyes of the family were upon them but because that was the kind of man he was. My husband is the same, always embarrassed lest someone should see, lest he lose his dignity.
I can imagine how for the next few weeks mother-in-law and sisters looked eagerly at Sara for signs of pregnancy. I have seen that eager probing look in my husband’s mother’s eyes and the cold hostility that has replaced it.
Sara did not conceive and like mine, her mother-in-law was disappointed. I should have warned you that Sara’s story is often mine, so you must not mind if I step out of my role as narrator and speak of myself. Little has changed in my world and I can bridge the past with ease. With her son far away in England for five long years, Sara’s mother-in-law’s hopes of a grandchild receded and this made her sharp and impatient with Sara. Perhaps some expression in Sara’s eyes dismayed her, causing harsh words to bubble to her lips. My mother-in-law says that about me.
Sara’s sisters-in-law often told of the battles that raged between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Although they never condoned Sara’s behaviour, it is obvious they admired her for standing up to their mother. They never lost their respect for the little dried up woman, in her last years bent almost double, who was mentally as straight and rigid as a ramrod. That is how she appears from the family photographs high up on the walls of the ancestral house, fly-spotted and fading. As a child I often stood on a stool to peer at the family, ranged along the walls where little light ever reached them, all sad and forlorn, unsmiling.
In resisting authority Sara had good practice in her childhood home. Her father, a much respected barrister, was unable to maintain justice in his own home. In seeking a mother for his motherless children, he had chosen a widow with daughters of her own and it had soon become apparent that there was no place in her heart for another woman’s children.
She was a woman who made sure, if she were crossed, that her husband should not rest until she had been appeased and he was above all a man of peace. In her frequent confrontations with Sara, the reverberations were such that the father was reduced to begging his daughter to give in. It is from Sara’s sister Anna that we have these accounts; her spirit so thoroughly broken by the stepmother that she remained timid and afraid of her own shadow to the end of her days.
It is hard to believe that in a wealthy household, one of the cruelties perpetrated against the stepchildren was to deprive them of food. Remember, however, that the kitchen was the only domain where a woman was supreme, food her most potent weapon, both as blandishment (husband and sons) and punishment. By making Sara and Anna serve the rest of the family at mealtimes (“good practice for them when they are married”, said she to her husband) and letting them eat only after everyone else had finished, she ensured that there was little or nothing left for them, forcing them to make do with rice washed down with the gravy left in the dishes.
The stepmother did not dare do this to her stepson who ate with his father; one day, as Aunt Anna recalled years later: “He came upon us eating plain rice and pickles while he had just eaten two kinds of meat and fish. When Sara told him that this was often all we got, he flew into a rage and threw all the pots and pans to the floor.” Aunt Anna’s eyes always opened very wide when she told this story reliving those faraway days. “He made our stepmother open her cupboards and stood over us until we had eaten our fill of everything.” This is Anna’s favourite story; sometimes when I have watched her pick at her food and find fault with her daughter-in-law’s cooking, it has occurred to me that she probably never enjoyed a meal more than the one her beloved brother procured for her.
Varkey, however, could not always be there to see that his sisters were properly fed and it fell to Sara to look after herself and her sister. She became expert at picking locks and took pleasure in defying the stepmother in every way she could.
One person who has survived from that time is Kurumba the Untouchable who worked for the family, between whom and Sara there existed a bond that was never broken.
. An Untouchable, one whose shadow could pollute a high caste person, Kurumba had grown up accustomed to degradation and careless cruelty; it was a revelation to see the high born Sara and Anna treated not dissimilarly.
Kurumba accompanied Sara to her marital home. I have tried to coax from her the details of what took place there, but she is happy enough to ramble on about the past till I get to a certain point. Then her eyes glaze and she says fretfully that she cannot remember. Sometimes she claims that she was not there at all during the crucial time, or says she has no idea of what I am speaking.
From Kurumba’s accounts it is clear that in her husband’s house Sara was not starved of food, but she received no tenderness, that she perceived her husband’s mother as an enemy not dissimilar to the stepmother she had left behind.
Sara’s only method of escape from the tyranny of the mother-in-law was literally to escape from the house and into books. When I ask Kurumba, she grumbles: “What do I know of books and reading? All I know is she would get hold of some book , from where I do not know, hide herself and read. They would call for her endlessly and ask me where she had gone. She would not answer and I would not tell.” Hours later, Sara would stroll in and ask nonchalantly: “Were you looking for me?”
Sara loved books and before the stepmother’s advent, she had been sent to a school for girls run by two English missionaries known as ‘the Madamas’.
Her passion for reading was, of course, anathema to Sara’s mother-in-law, especially since it was not the Bible that she read so religiously. She spent long hours in the privy outside, or lay curled up in the attic, whose rickety stairs she knew her mother-in-law would not negotiate and her sisters-in-law were afraid of the spidery dark.
I, too, as a child have spent hours up there in the attic with its long sloping roof and raftered ceiling. At first I went up there to play hide and seek because I knew the other girls would be too scared to look for me in its dark recesses. Then the shapes and shadows cast in the half gloom fascinated me
Later I discovered the mat lying close to the skylight and I imagined how Sara must have lain there reading her purloined literature. I should know for it echoes my own life; I too, lose myself in the lives of other women, as far removed from me as they can be. My mother-in-law often tells my husband that it is not normal for anyone to read as much as I do.
As a housebound daughter-in-law, there was no way Sara could have got the books she devoured in her secret hiding places. So, where did she get them from. On some of my visits I have found books, yellowing and dog eared, and some letters on which the ink has faded so that the writing is barely decipherable.
“Just as well”, Kurumba said tartly when I showed them to her, “old letters are not for young people to read.” I did not ask her what would become of history if everyone shared her opinion.
Sara must have had some one in that house who brought her the books. Even today there are few if any books to be found in that house and In that village there is still only one bookshop and Sara could not have frequented it. The pimply young man who serves there now knows nothing of Sara.
This, it seems to me, must have been the beginning of the relationship between Sara and her husband’s cousin Moni. I do not know, but I believe it was Moni who supplied Sara with her books. Perhaps he had to do it secretly and thus began its clandestine nature. Whatever the basis, a relationship between two young people of the opposite sex was taboo and none would credit that such a relationship was not sexual; after all, what else had they in common?
In a joint family there is little privacy and always watchful eyes. Perhaps secret glances were intercepted, intimate words overheard, sifted through the prurient minds of the family. Far worse, to my mind, is the possibility that none of this occurred, that Sara never experienced the warmth and love that her nature craved.
Whatever the truth, I only know what has come down the family grapevine with all its distortions and anxious attempts at a cover up. The trail is now hopelessly confused, the scent is cold, there is now no one alive who can or will tell me the truth. Not even old Kurumba, perhaps the only person in that house who genuinely loved Sara, because her memory travels randomly back and forth, skirting the tragedy which lies entombed in the labyrinth of her mind.
So, I know only a few bald facts extricated from a woven fabric of family stories which have a quality of once upon a time, almost fairy stories. Perhaps this was the only way they could come to terms with the tragedy of an erring ancestress and mitigate some of the shame and pain. Certainly, this pain and shame created a veil that is hard to pierce.
I speak of pain and shame, but across the years, it may be difficult for you to comprehend the tragedy in the scale to which it belonged.
Sara loved to read, Sara was headstrong, Sara was unfaithful….could there be any connection between these things? Was she actually discovered in Moni’s arms? Nobody will say so. When I was young and unmarried, such a subject was not considered fitting. Now that I am married and really want to know the truth, they say they cannot remember.
So, we return to the one bald, incontrovertible fact that no one denies: Sara was sent back in disgrace to her father’s house. What happened to Moni I do not know. My mother says she knows nothing about him and I am inclined to believe her, though I know that she would distort any fact that did not suit her purpose. To her, respectability is all…and oh yes, adaptability, which only means that if you are a woman you must give in to everybody and everything.
One of my mother’s favourite sayings is that one “should be like a tree well rooted so that storms and sudden floods will not uproot it.”
I ask: “What happens if the ground is hostile to that tree?”
My mother sighs as only she can, and calls me headstrong. But a woman is not a tree, nor indeed, is she a fish. Another saying is that the creature that swims with the tide rather than against it will survive. But what if the creature’s desire is to shoot the rapids, to fling itself headlong against the currents regardless of where it might be cast?
Eyewitnesses at Sara’s father’s home report that when her palanquin arrived, the old man was reclining on the veranda. Shading his eyes against the glare of the afternoon sun he saw his daughter descend and rose to greet her. What transpired between them no one knows but as he led her in, he was heard to say, tears running down his face: “Daughter, you have rubbed coal on my face.” They say and of course they held it against her, that Sara was dry eyed. What was said by the stepmother (and there is no doubt that she would have been at no loss for words) was not handed down to posterity. When as a young girl I visited that house where the stepmother survived to a great old age, I always shrank from her embrace. Because of my affinity with Sara; I was almost physically aware of her sufferings at the hands of this smiling old woman.
My mother, bless her pragmatic soul, always said: “She is an old woman, all that is in the past and must be forgotten.” Then she adds: “It is not for us to judge our elders.” But I do! I sit in judgement over all those who set first Sara and then me adrift in a world without love, without the right to choose where we might love.
I tell you, I am like a leaky boat: no matter how much water is baled out, the bitterness wells up, threatening to submerge me. I ask myself if Sara had felt this way, are my feelings but a bitter reflection?
Sara was only in her teens when disgrace overtook her; she was childless, and as good as divorced, a fate worse than death in those days. I have tried to imagine the years that followed for beautiful high spirited Sara and I believe they must have been years spent in hell.
Had Sara fallen in love with Moni? I do not know and now never will as the past recedes daily. If she loved him then the separation must have been cruel enough, but if there had been nothing between them except what prurient eyes and narrow minds pieced together, how unjust her punishment. Sara was condemned to taunts and servitude by a triumphant stepmother, she saw the grief of her father whose hair (they said) turned white overnight, she was unwanted by a husband she had not learned to love. She had nothing to look forward to, one can see how gradually her spirit was crushed.
Sara’s sister Anna sometimes talks of this time, of how she would wake in the night to hear her sister weeping. Anna herself never deviated from the path of duty, once her feet were set upon it. Married to an intellectual, she devoted herself to feeding his body and never impinged on his mind. Great aunt Anna was famed for her cooking.
The years passed for Sara, spent in petty skirmishes with her stepmother, but even these seemed to have lost their fire for, as Anna tells it, Sara no longer seemed to notice the skimpy food, seemed not to care about the taunts of stepmother and stepsisters. Her father greatly pitied her and according to Kurumba, did what he could but he was afraid of the wrath of his wife.
I have a thin yellowing notebook which bears no name on its flyleaf, but I am sure it belonged to Sara, that its disjointed entries belong to this time. Some of the things she wrote there she also said to her sister for they have been repeated by her. “My life is running to waste like water gathered in a leaking bucket,” she wrote. “I have the appetite of a rakshasa and I am given the diet of a pygmy”, but when Anna repeated this to us across the intervening years it seemed to me that she thought Sara was referring to the meagre food doled out by the stepmother. Food, after all, is central for most women
Unknown to Sara, negotiations were taking place between the two estranged families. Inter-connected as most families in Kerala are, with many relatives in common, one of these took it upon herself to bring about a reconciliation. At first Sara’s husband’s family appeared adamant, they wanted no more of Sara, they said, but then they weakened, there were many practical reasons for bridging the rift.
I think this must have been the time that Sara’s husband returned from England armed with his MBBS, a qualified doctor ready to take up his place in the world. I would like to believe (as I am sure Sara did, too) that when he returned home he missed his beautiful wife, that despite his humourlessness and pomposity, he loved Sara and wanted her back. More likely, however, he realised that a divorce (however innocent) might not be able to remarry advantageously. People would whisper as people will and my grandfather was a man who weighed up every situation before he took action. Whatever the reason (and because of the selective family censorship I do not know) he agreed to take Sara back.
So, like a prisoner let out on parole, Sara rejoined her husband. Perhaps she rejoiced or maybe she thought she had exchanged one prison for another. She redeemed herself almost at once by producing in the shortest possible time a son and heir; less than two years later my mother followed and may be they were a happy little family then. I would like to think so but when I look at the family album my heart sinks. In the photograph taken after my mother’s birth, Sara’s eyes look into mine with what I can only call desperation…I have seen that look often enough in my mirror, I should know.
Sara holds the baby in her arms, while her son sits proudly in his father’s lap and Sara looks away from them all. My grandfather’s moustache is stiff, he is carefully dressed, quite dapper really, but there is no warmth there. You can see what I mean, can’t you? See how Sara stands beside her husband’s seated figure, can you not see the space between them? It is a space which I think they never bridged.
With some people the shadow of death lays an aura on them. When they lose hope, they feel the core of their being draining away. When one knows that one will never achieve the desire of one’s heart and mind, one gives up. In Sara’s eyes I see my own self knowledge, recognise my failure.
The women in my family are all mismatched and when it came to my turn my mother made sure that I should have what she wanted for herself. I am, married to a dentist, professionally qualified, dull, who spends his days peering into the mouth of decay. He is a very good dentist, people swear by him and seek his skill from far and wide. It is no fault of his that there is nothing more, no fault of his that I need more. My mother says I am ungrateful, a romantic child with foolish notions; she points out that my husband is successful and growing richer every day, that all those who bare their teeth to him sing his praises and there is a brisk trade in gold teeth. Of course, those are not her words but I can interpret her satisfaction at my well equipped house and jewel box.
To my mother-in-law it seems I have no rights because my body has failed in its primary duty. At first she used to concoct little potions for me, give me sesame seeds to purify my blood. My body’s blood beats a rhythm which used to be a song but is now turned into a lament.
I lie alone in my bed while my husband sits in his surgery making gold teeth and dentures. Gold teeth are very fashionable here, a good investment. I wait my life away. Like Sara’s my life, too, is running to waste like a tap left running, it irrigates no land and no garden blooms in the desert.
When my body cries out to him soundlessly: wait! he does not hear, I am left abandoned, marooned and only my pride keeps me afloat, that and my imagination which bears me away to a distant place. I think of Sara and I wonder how it was for her. Then as now, we do not talk of some things, they are not important for a decent woman, only motherhood is important; what goes before must be endured, never dwelt upon.
Some years after my mother’ s birth, Sara had another child, another son and a few short months later she was dead. Once again, all is shrouded in mystery, once more family censorship came into play. My mother believes the official version: Sara was nursing the new baby, he bit her nipple. The wound turned septic and Sara died of blood poisoning, for in those days there were no antibiotics and certainly, in wealthy influential families, no post mortems.
This story, despite the effect on the innocent perpetrator, was the one the family clung to. Inevitably, however, there were whispers, the servants talked and the village gossips hinted darkly at suicide. Old Kurumba says sometimes: “She was not happy, is it any wonder that she did not live? One must fight for life if one wants it.” Is this her way of saying that Sara took her own life? She will never say so and when I ask her if the baby had any teeth in his head, she shakes her head and moves away.
Well, Sara is almost forgotten now. Less than a year after her death my grandfather remarried and his second wife was a success. She was neither fair skinned nor beautiful but they say my grandfather and his mother had had their fill of beauty and now wanted only a practical woman of good sense. As our village women say, a plain wife is more likely to tend to her duties than a beautiful one.
Practical and sensible, she filled the space left by Sara and obliterated her.
You never saw in her eyes the expression I see in Sara’s, an expression which even cardboard, yellowing and mottled, cannot conceal. There is a wild, a hungry look in Sara’s eyes; what was she seeking that she never found? I liken her to the canary about whom she told stories to Anna.
It was a pretty bird, that lived in a gilded cage, expected to sing in blissful contentment while outside wild birds soared and winged their way. Sometimes the little bird went wild, hung upside down from its perch and bit desperately upon the bars of its cage. But, asked Sara, if we opened the cage door what would this poor bird do? A bird bred in captivity cannot soar into the trackless blue sky; it cannot defend itself against the vultures that circle overhead, it cannot escape the prowling feral cat, nor the cruel child who would pull its beautiful feathers.
Then, Anna would say, it is better off in its cage with us to give it food and water and listen to its song.
Yet, Sara would reply, maybe if we set it free, helpless as it is, it would perhaps find another like itself and sit in the mango tree and sing whether anyone hears it or not.
Perhaps I have misrepresented Sara, perhaps I have told lies, repeated falsehoods. No, I have not tried to deceive but I have drawn analogies, I have tried to describe passion but have only been able to rake over cold ashes. I have tried to tell of a life lived in limbo, a soul in purgatory, but perhaps I have told you only about myself and not stepped as I wanted to, through the looking glass. An unreal life, not just because it is past, finished with, but because I have never known what Sara perhaps briefly knew. There are no sensual scenes, no beds and bosoms, no violence, no shuddering orgasm. What I speak of in lowered tones for none but you to hear, is silent festering, quiet desperation.
THE GOLD BEADS
“Do you think they will come?”
Narayan looked up yet again from his to see that Amini had once again taken up her stand at the door. For the last several days this had been her favourite place from where she waited impatiently for the postman, or just stood and scanned the road outside as if she expected someone to appear at any moment. Her question had been so often repeated and answered by him (although he wondered if she really listened to his answers) that Narayan had no need to ask his wife whose coming it was she awaited. When he sat correcting his students’ exercises, Amini had appeared, standing between him and the light, to ask her question. While she arranged jasmine and marigold in the puja room in the early morning he could hear her prayer to the deity. When she sat in the kitchen cutting vegetables for the midday meal he heard her telling the maid that they would surely come, surely they would? In a few days time it would be Amini’s sixtieth birthday.
Sixty is a vastly auspicious day (perhaps because in the old days few people lived to see that day) and this birthday is usually celebrated by all who can afford to, very traditionally and lavishly. Amini had been preparing for this great event for a long time and all the preparations were based on the hope, the belief, that her two sons would surely come home to participate in the celebrations. Otherwise what use to make sesame seed balls and jackfruit hala, sticky and black and all the other good things with which she liked to greet her sons?
Narayan’s sixtieth birthday, some years before, had been celebrated by the school of which he was the headmaster. He had not expected his sons to come home specially for the event but by a coincidence, one of the boys had been at home when the event took place. Now he watched his wife as she went once more to stand in the verandah; she scanned the compound, her hand over her eyes to shade them from the glare of the noonday sun which shimmered on the ripeness of paddy fields that stretched green and yellow for as far as the eye could see.
But he knew that she saw neither the paddy, nor the ducks and chickens that scratched about outside, nor the pumpkins hanging roundly ripe in the vegetable patch. Amini’s eyes, Narayan knew, were on the look-out for the postman, sure yet again as she had been yesterday and the day before, that today he would bring news of her sons, a letter to announce their imminent arrival.
Always a beauty, Amini took great pride in her appearance, spending long hours oiling her hair and body with warmed coconut oil; rubbing her feet with a hard stone to keep them soft and supple; washing her long black hair with a special decoction of hibiscus leaves. To Narayan’s eyes, she seemed as beautiful as ever. Her hair showed no trace of grey, long and still shiny with oil, a flower still tucked in its coil. Narayan was a school teacher and he could tell you with a wry smile that it was a vocation that earns great respect but only a pittance in monetary terms. However, he had always loved books and he had loved the boys to whom he tried so hard, year after year, to impart some of his love of learning. Not always successfully and Narayan had sighed deeply and frequently over his many failures, but sometimes there had been one or two souls that had been sparked by the flame he lit and then everything became worthwhile: all the struggle, the lack of material success, the sacrifice, became well worth it. That was one of the things that Amini had never understood and the fact that her husband had preferred to teach and earn a pittance rather than find more gainful employment was one of the things she never forgave him. She had come from a business family where there had always been plenty of money; there had been no books in the house in which she grew up, but she had never lacked pretty clothes, jewellery and other fancies. She could see no use for the books with which her husband filled their house and Narayan told himself that it was only natural that Amini lost her temper when he spent his hard earned small salary on books. After all, to her they were just objects that gathered dust and took up space in their small house.
Once, in a grand gesture of fury, she had thrown his books on the floor and stamped on them. “Of what use are all these books?” she had screamed at him. “Do they buy food or clothes? When did I last buy a silk sari?” Narayan had said nothing in reply as he gathered the books together, dusting them with a tenderness that had only annoyed Amini the more as she watched him cradle his books in his hands. “You are not a real man”, she had said contemptuously and had turned away, kicking one of the books out of her path.
It had seemed to Amini that the man she was married to never reacted as other men did; he never lost his temper with her, his eyes just slid away from the provocation in hers and he went away quietly to weather the storm, leaving her to vent her frustration as best she could.
Amini had not wanted to marry Narayan and she had told him this often enough. Herself fair complexioned, dark eyed and with an aquiline nose, she had always valued good looks above everything else and what she had wanted, had dreamed of, was a tall and handsome man, someone as fair skinned as she with features to match. When she was ready to be married, however, they had found Narayan for her,…short, dark and stocky of build.
Narayan was a Bachelor of Arts at a time when few men of their community went beyond the Intermediate and like many ill educated people, Amini’s father had an exaggerated respect for learning and scholarship. So when Narayan not only secured a B.A., but a first class as well, he decided at once on Narayan as his son-in-law. It had not occurred to him to consult his daughter; in those days this was unheard of and daughters married as they were told, not even seeing their husbands until the wedding day. Compatibility, or the lack of it, never entered anyone’s head.
When Amini met her bridegroom for the first time she had wept with humiliation and anguish. Fortunately, her tears had been considered most becoming by the people around, expressing a proper sense of delicacy in a young bride. Narayan had known, however, that Amini had been disappointed, she had not failed to tell him so. She had never forgiven him for not being the man of her dreams.
Amini had never questioned her feelings about her husband, she was not given to that kind of introspection, but over the years she had come to rely on Narayan, to turn to him (although, often enough, she turned on him as well) when life’s little tribulations became too much for her. Always quick tempered herself, it had been Narayan who smoothed matters over and gently sorted out her tangled skeins. Yet, all too often, she had mocked him for being too gentle, not assertive enough. Narayan had been a good husband. Gentle and caring, he had never spoken roughly to Amini nor ever raised his hand against her, although there were many who thought that she would richly have deserved such treatment. Narayan had escaped into his books and into the classroom which occupied his days.
Once, in the very earliest days of their marriage, he had tried to interest her in what he read and thought but a yawn too slowly stifled had not escaped him and thereafter they had pursued their separate ways. Narayan had always been proud of his wife’s beauty and he was gentle and because of this theirs had been a quiet marriage.
“You take everything lying down”, Amini had often told Narayan, “if you do not fight back people will sit on your head!” That she did not consider him manly enough, Narayan knew; certainly, he did not have the build (or anything else for that matter) of a hero, the kind Amini and her friends went to see in the cinema.
No matter what Amini said in her moods of frequent exasperation, Narayan merely smiled and took up his umbrella which, rain or shine, he carried everywhere and go off to school or for a walk. Amini had never known where he went and had never given it a thought, not at any rate, after her sons were born.
They had been a long time arriving and during those years, fearful of sterility, Amini had haunted all the ayurveds and holy shrines for miles around, swallowing potions of every kind, making offerings of fruit, flowers and money to the temples. With the birth of her sons (both of them mercifully taking after her rather than their father) everything that had been starved in Amini now flowed into a strong maternalism and Amini began to live, as she said, for her boys. They had inherited their father’s brains without his bookishness and so they had done better than he had in material terms, entering the world of commerce where the rewards were tangible and immediate.
Both boys had married well; Amini had seen to that, ensuring that they got brides with outstanding good looks. Although she had selected them herself, poring over hundreds of photographs and horoscopes, her lips always thinned when she spoke or thought of her daughters-in-law. Of course, they were lucky to have got her sons as husbands, but…. Would they, she wondered now, prevent her boys from attending her sixtieth birthday celebration? Wives were possessive and in Amini’s opinion, her sons’ wives were exceptionally so. Over and over again, Amini told her husband, the maid, herself, that it might not be easy for her boys to leave their busy and important jobs in the big city to come home for her birthday. Her voice, her eyes, however, appealed for contradiction. If they came (surely they would, had they not always been loving sons even if they did not write often and were too busy to come home as often as she would have liked) what would they bring with them as presents? They always brought her something and Amini glossed over in her mind that all too often they had been gifts for which she had small use.
Naturally, every gift had been given pride of place in the glass cabinet in the front room: china and glass and gadgets, most of which remained pristine in their packing.
What Amini longed for, coveted and desired as, she told herself, she had never desired anything else in her life, was a heavy gold necklace made in the shape of an ascetic’s rudraksha beads, but of a heaviness, ornateness and price that far removed the beads from any form of asceticism. She had not spoken of this desire to Narayan, although she had enthused over the necklace, for of what use would that have been? She and everyone else knew that he could not afford such a beautiful object and even if he could (her lip curled scornfully), Narayan would prefer to spend his money on books.
Her sons, her two boys, could well afford such a gift and accordingly, Amini had described the necklace to them in every letter she had written to them, hinting gently at what a fitting thing it would be for a sixtieth birthday. Her cousin Janaki had been with her when they had seen the necklace in the jeweller’s shop. They had admired it together, reverently running their fingers over the ornately carved beads. Amini had vowed that one day soon she would be the owner of the necklace; Janaki had smiled and said: “Perhaps I too will get one.” Amini had said nothing but she had smiled inwardly for in her opinion, there was no way poor Janaki could get such a necklace. True, she too would be sixty, there were only a few days between their birthdays, but Janaki had been a widow for ten years and she had only one child and that a daughter.
Amini had been unable to get that necklace out of her mind and had been back to the jeweller’s shop many times to look at it. On the last occasion, the jeweller’s assistant had told her that they were making just such another necklace only differing in length as it had to be somewhat cheaper in price.
Turning the matter over in her mind, Amini had come to a decision. She would go once more to the jeweller and reserve the necklace for her to be paid for when the boys came home. After all, said Amini to herself, such a gift would be in the nature of an investment because gold was valuable and after her death the necklace would belong to her sons.
Thus convinced, Amini set out yet again for the shop. As soon as she had entered and closed her umbrella, her eyes dazzled by the glare of the sun outside, she was greeted by a familiar voice.
“Why Aunt Amini, what brings you here today?”
“Susheela,” responded Amini as her eyes adjusted to the light and she recognized her cousin Janaki’s daughter, “when did you come home and what brings you here might I ask?” her tone suggested that Susheela could have little business to do in a jewellery shop.
“I came only yesterday”, the young woman replied, “I am here for my mother’s sixtieth birthday. A very important day, is it not?”
“Indeed it is”, Amini agreed, “I too will be celebrating mine. What is it you are buying here?”
As she spoke, the jeweller brought a box to Susheela who opened it to reveal the rudraksha necklace, the beads nestling against red velvet. She took the necklace out and let the beads run between her fingers. “This is what I have bought for my mother’s sixtieth birthday. She mentioned it only once but I knew at once it was what she wanted and so I told her to order it.”
She turned to the jeweller and said: “You have shortened it as she asked?”
Amini did not know how she got out of that shop without revealing her rage, humiliation and disappointment. Vaguely she heard the jeweller call after her but she did not stop to hear what he said. All that had registered with her and which beat like a refrain in her head during the long hot walk home was that her cousin Janaki, a widow with no sons, had got that beautiful necklace and not she, a wife and mother of two sons.
When she got home, hot, tired and dusty, Amini decided to go straight to the bathroom to wash, perhaps mindful of the angry tears that had dried on her cheeks. As she picked up a towel, the maid came eagerly to the door to announce in a portentous voice that at last the long awaited letter had arrived. One look at the envelope told Amini that it was from her elder son, but she could not bring herself to open it; she turned it many times between her fingers, watched in puzzlement by the
“Have you nothing better to do than stand and stare at me?” Amini snapped at her and the girl who had been waiting to share the good news with her mistress, bent her head and turned away. Amini stood indecisive for several minutes, unable to bring herself to open the letter she had so longed to receive. Eventually, her towel still draped around her in preparation for her wash, Amini went into the small poky room just off the kitchen where Narayan sat to mark his students’ exercises and give tuition. She laid the envelope on the desk in front of him.
Narayan looked at it and then up at his wife and said in his quiet way:”But it is for you from Lakshman.”
“I know”, Amini replied, but her eyes did not meet his, for she knew that she would see pity there. Instead, she glanced around the familiar little room and noticed how neatly Narayan kept his books and papers and probably for the first time realized that this was for him as much a place of worship as the puja room was to her, despite the sundry objects that she had insisted on storing there. Suddenly she felt ashamed that she had prevented him from making even this room wholly his …. it was funny how thoughts came unbidden to one’s mind at certain times. With sharpened tone she said: “I want you to open the letter and read it.”
Glancing at her with compassion, Narayan opened the letter, carefully slitting the envelope with the paper knife. Then he reached for his glasses and cleared his throat; Amini, normally impatient of her husband’s deliberate ways, said nothing and Narayan began to read aloud. He got no further than the opening salutations when she stopped him.
“No, I do not want you to read it aloud. Just tell me this, are my sons coming home for my birthday or not?” There was silence in the room as Narayan carefully read the letter through. Amini never looked at him; instead she thought that she really ought to remove some of those unwanted tins and bottles and make a little more space for the poor man.
Then Narayan took off his glasses and held the letter out to her. He shook his head. “Lakshman writes that he cannot take leave at this time because there is to be a major reorganization of his firm and he says it would be foolish of him to be away at such a time. Ramesh cannot come either as he has just shelled out a large sum of money to buy land. Lakshman says, however, that they have pooled their resources to buy you a silver teapot.”
Without a word Amini turned and left the room, ignoring both the letter in her husband’s outstretched hand and the pity in his gaze. She went into her puja room and stared with hostile eyes, hot with unshed tears, at the image of her household god. He had been honoured as usual that morning: fresh flowers garlanded him and lay in a colourful heap at his bronze feet; a spot of vermilion had been applied to his forehead and an oil lamp burned fitfully beside a silver tray on which fruit, sandalwood paste, kum-kum and a coconut were set out in offering.
“Of what use are you if you cannot even answer my prayers?” Amini demanded. “All my life I have done your puja faithfully, done everything right, but what do I get? Two ungrateful sons who put everything and everybody before their mother who slaved for them, who gave them everything they ever asked for.”
Amini could not cry. It was anger that blazed within her, dry and hot, acrid as burning red chili and it was anger against herself. As she gazed into the calm countenance of the deity, it seemed to her that she had got it all wrong. Always, she had put the sons first, before even her husband and that was not only foolish, it was not right. There was a noise at the door and without turning to see who it was, Amini called: “Go away, leave me alone. I do not want to see anyone.”
“Amini”, said Narayan and his voice was very gentle, “I had not intended to give you your birthday present so early but I think now, today, is a good time for it. Here you are, take it. I know you went again to the jewellery shop and Ganeshan (you know, he is an old student) must have told you that I had bought the necklace.”
Amini looked in astonishment at the jewel box her husband was holding out to her, unable to believe her eyes. Seeing her hesitate, Narayan opened the box and there against the blue satin nestled the gold rudraksha beads that she had admired for so long. So overcome was Amini at this sight that she forgot everything and with the tears now pouring down her face, she threw herself at her husband’s feet and sobbed hysterically. Narayan raised her up and held her but there was a deep sadness in his eyes and an awkwardness in the arms that held her. Amini could not quite make out what it was he murmured but it sounded strangely like: “Was that all it took?” But even as he spoke, he held her away from him and offered her the gold beads.
“Put it on, Amini and dry your eyes. You have what you wanted and if your sons did not give it to you, is it any less because your husband did?”
“Oh no, no,” sobbed Amini as she took the proffered beads and fastened it around her neck, noticing through her tears that it had not been truncated. Hers was the original necklace and Janaki had the copy.
“B-but it is very expensive”, she stammered, “how can you afford it?”
“I gave a few extra tuitions and some of those books of mine which you hate so much, they paid for it”, Narayan replied drily and did not add that Ganeshan the jeweller so respected his old teacher that he had made a substantial reduction in the price.
Amini was not given to introspection but in the days that followed and especially on her sixtieth birthday, as she prostrated herself before her god, she spent some time in reflection. It resulted in a prayer when for the first time, Amini prayed for her husband. She begged to be given time, time to make up for all her earlier neglect. That Narayan had stood by her through all the years of their marriage did not, she realized, redound to her credit but to his.
Amini had still not got it right. She had failed to recognize the look on her husband’s face, she had not seen the final renunciation. The postman brought the silver teapot her sons had sent and it was silently put away in the glass cabinet in the front room along with all the other useless gifts she had so prized and it was as she did so that Narayan came and told her that he was leaving her, leaving home, leaving his way of life.
“Perhaps”, he explained in his quiet way, “it was those rudraksha beads of yours that put put it into my head.” He smiled to himself at his little joke, “be that as it may, I am going on a pilgrimage and then I am going to live as an ascetic. I have been studying for some years now with a swami and I have known for a long time that this is the way for me. I have provided for you as best I can and so you should be all right”. He did not add that he did not expect her to miss him. He had given her what had been her heart’s desire but he had at long last taken himself away. Nothing that Amini could say or do would dissuade him and even as she wept, she knew that he had gone beyond her tears, reproaches or promises to make amends if only he stayed. In simple saffron robes, with the plain rudraksha beads of an ascetic around his neck, Narayan left the house and Amini was left alone with her golden elaborately carved beads and a glass cabinet full of unwanted objects.
eetu did not understand that when you are very poor dreams don’t mean anything. That is all they are, dreams, unreality, a fugitive hope that has hunkered down in the further recesses of the mind. All that really matters when one is down and out is survival.
Neetu is only 12, a small wisp of a girl, who left her native Kerala many years ago but not long enough to erase the memories to which she has clung all this time, memories that became a dream of happiness past, happiness waiting to be reclaimed in a beautiful place that had somehow got lost. Or so it seemed to the little girl who treasured her memories as other children play with brightly coloured objects.
Vatakkara in Kerala, where Neetu’s family had lived, is not a rich place, but it is green, lush and it was home even though that home was only a small bare hut in which she had lived with her grandparents, parents and other relatives. Her parents had worked very hard as landless labour, her father as a coolie pulling heavy loads and her mother doing odd jobs. For the little ones, however, there had been ponds to splash in, trees to climb and loving grandparents on whose laps they might lie down to sleep.
When the chance came and it had seemed like a big chance, Neetu’s parents had migrated from Vatakkara to the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, as different from green pellucid Kerala as any part of India could be and they toiled there in the harsh climate and came slowly to the realisation that they had only exchanged one kind of poverty for another. And they were not at home, outsiders who never would truly belong.
Realising that they could not afford to support Neetu and the other children who had come into being, they got Neetu employed as a servant maid in an affluent local household. At an age when she should have been at school and at play with her friends, Neetu shouldered all the household chores that were thrust upon her and nobody thought that she was too young to take on such a burden. There are many children like Neetu who struggle on as domestic servants. People believe that they are better off working, but then some people will believe anything that makes the unpleasant more palatable. There are many such people who will tell you solemnly that they are doing the little child who toils in their home or business a good turn.
Although she was only a child, close in age to their own children, she was not their child and Neetu’s employers were not kind to her. She was only a servant and servants belong to a different breed; soon the harassment began and grew to unbearable levels. She is still unable to talk about it but if you persist with your questions the tears welling in her eyes and some suspicious marks on her arms and legs need no words, they annotate only too well a cruel page in her life. There is a look about a child who is unloved and it is plain for all who have eyes to see.
Finally, Neetu could stand it no longer, perhaps some small misdemeanor or childish mistake brought dreadful retribution on her defenceless body, so she ran away. She did not go back to her parents, she knew there was no recourse there, that there was nothing they could do to help her. She was half starved, hurt and alone, but something remained in her mind, had never been erased from her memory, which she knew she must look for. What drove her on was the dream she still carried in her mind of her quiet native village in Vatakkara, which seemed to be her only hope.
She had no clear idea of where Vatakkara was or how she might reach that place, but she remembered that she and her parents had come from there in a train. So she went to the railway station and thought that she might find a train going in that direction. It was not as easy as she had thought because there were many trains to catch before one might find a train to take one to Vatakkara.
Wandering bewildered on the station platform, she was noticed by some policemen and it was obvious that she was penniless. So they did the only thing they could do, they took her into custody and later she was produced in court. There, Neetu told the judge her tale and she begged and she pleaded to be sent back to Vatakkara. Her grandfather had died and others of the family had moved away but she was sure that her grandmother who still lived in the village would welcome her back with open arms.
The judge must have been a kindly man; perhaps he was moved by a little girl’s tears or else he saw the scars on her thin malnourished body and recognised that they were recent. Whatever the reason, he acceded to her request and she was sent to Kerala accompanied by two women constables of the Madhya Pradesh police.
When they arrived in Kerala two Kerala policewomen joined the trio in order to help them locate the house in Vatakkara where Neetu’s grandmother still lived. It was not an easy task. One mud hut looks very much like another and coconut palms and ponds are not reliable landmarks and the little child who had left Vatakkara so many years before had no real clues to where the grandmother’s hut might be. She saw it very clearly in her mind’s eye, the well with the pulli tree beside it from which she had plucked the sour fruit to suck, even now it made her mouth pucker; the verandah on which her grandmother had lulled her to sleep with old lullabies. But what she saw there in the Vatakkara they took her to did not fit in with the dream, the long-ago memories. The reality looked different and she did not even know her grandmother’s real name.
Still, somehow, through tenuous links and tortuous questions, they found the place and they found the old woman, Neetu’s grandmother. The reunion was joyful, for she did welcome the little girl, her grandchild who had come all those many long, lonely miles in order to find what she thought of as her home.
Her grandmother embraced her and she wept as she put before the policewomen and Neetu all the food she had in the house, eked out with some help from the curious neighbours who had gathered around. And it was not much.
It was not food that Neetu desired, all her desire was towards her grandmother and this peaceful green spot where she lived. She clung to her grandmother and words, half remembered, came to her lips mixed with the Hindustani she had been speaking all these years. Her grandmother could not understand what she was trying to say, could not disentangle the words that poured so excitedly from the child. With tears in her eyes, she explained to the policewomen that she could not keep Neetu with her; she could not look after her when she was so poor herself that she often went without even ricewater. What did she have, she asked them, to give this little grand daughter? Nothing, for she was old and sick and it obviously did not seem enough that at least for awhile she could have given Neetu a home in which she might feel loved.
Unable to talk to her grandmother in Malayalam, Neetu could express none of her longing, her homesickness, the dreams she had had of green beautiful Vatakkara with its stretching rice fields, its coconut palms set aflame by the sun and the pools of clear bright water. Her dream of a beautiful place in which she might live happily and in contentment was in jeopardy for she could not explain it to the one person on whom she had pinned all her hopes.
She wanted to throw her arms about her grandmother, to fall at her feet and cling to her legs as perhaps she had done as a little child, but she did not, for she was no longer a child.
The grandmother wept helplessly as Neetu turned and went with the policewomen to the railway station, back to Madhya Pradesh, where who knows what future awaits her. The dream is not dead but she knows now that it was only a dream, that there will never be a homecoming for her.
This is a true story based on a report in The Indian Express, August 1996.
TOYS FOR MOTHER
aude Marston was 85 years old when she had her stroke. When she opened her eyes she saw what lay on the end of her bed and she knew what it meant. She shut her eyes because she was unable to turn away her head. As she lay there in her hospital bed, unable to speak, alone, the tears oozed from her eyes and she could not put up a hand to brush them away. The tears slid down her cheeks and into her pillow, making it sodden.
“Now, now, what’s this?” said the pretty young nurse as she bustled about. “You’ve got nothing to cry about, you are going to get well soon, see if you don’t, so come on love, lets have a little smile just for me.”
The nurse was young. Maude Marston had been young once too. She too had been pretty and bright and had never imagined that someone like her could ever be old, become old and helpless and ill as she now was. She thought she ought to warn the nurse that time changed everything; Maude saw how she glanced at herself in the mirror as she assisted her patients with their toilette.
“You, too, will one day be like me, everything gone and nothing left but the memories. Enjoy yourself, it won’t last,” that is what Mrs Marston wanted to tell young Nurse Carter but she could not speak the words. Her lips felt twisted and try as she might, no words came from her mouth.
`Just as well’, Mrs Marston thought, `she’d never understand what I was saying, just as I wouldn’t have when I was her age.’ Maude had been dreaming about her boys and she wanted to ask if her sons had been informed, whether they were coming to see her. But she did not ask because as soon as she had opened her eyes and seen what lay on the end of her bed she had known that they had not come, would not be coming. In any case, when she opened her mouth no words, only inarticulate sounds came out.
She had two sons and she had always loved both of them dearly. They both had taken after her, not after their father Albert. They had her red hair, blue eyes and her spirit. Perhaps, she thought, Alb had sometimes been a little jealous of the boys because he had known that with her they had always come first.
Alb had died several years ago. He had died of cancer and he had never told her that he had it, not till he had collapsed on the floor in an agony of pain. Maude had paced the hospital corridors, unable to sit by her husband’s bed, knowing that he was dying, that he was going to leave her alone. He had gone without a word, buried in his unconsciousness and had ended fifty years of marriage. She had never asked the doctor if Alb had known he had cancer and if so, why hadn’t he told her?
She had not wanted to stay on in the house she had occupied with him. Maude had insisted on selling up and moving out.
“But what will you do? Where will you go?” her sons had asked anxiously. She had been pleased at their concern; of course she didn’t expect to live with either of them. Her elder son Doug lived in New York, was a naturalised American, while Patrick who was in the Diplomatic Service, was everywhere, moved around the world every three years.
Maude had been to visit Doug and his wife Jayne in New York. That had been in the days when Alb was still alive, she could never have managed the airports and the plane trip all by herself. She had always been dependent on Alb and he had taken good care of her, taken care of everything, the money (not that there was ever much of that, she thought sardonically), the house and garden, holidays. Maude was of the generation that believed a woman should be looked after by her ‘feller’, not have to worry her pretty head over the business of living.
She remembered how intimidated she and Alb had been when they went to New York. Not by the city, but by their son and his home.
Everything in the apartment had been up to date American from the microwave to the laundry machine to the enormous TV with its numerous channels so unlike the dear old Beeb and ITV.
They had been afraid to touch anything, walking warily on the deep pile carpets, creeping into the kitchen after Doug and Jayne had left for work. “We used to be panting for a cuppa, we were used to tea at 6 a.m. sharp, your Dad always had the Teasmade set ready”, Maude remembered, but there was no criticism of Doug, she was always unremittingly loyal to her boys.
She had mentioned to Patrick that they had never made a meal for themselves in that splendid kitchen; “wouldn’t have dared, wouldn’t have known how, ” she said to her younger son with that little girl smile she always used with her boys.
“You are silly, Mother”, had been Patrick’s reply, “you should have asked Jayne to show you.”
“Oh no,” Maude had shaken her head solemnly, “oh no, I couldn’t do that.”
Alb and she had never been to visit Patrick because he was always being posted to way out places where, he told her, she would not be able to eat the food or even drink the water and he was right, she hated foreign muck. She knew Alb had wanted to go, would have loved to go to India or Iran with his son, but it was understood that, although she did not want to go, she could not be left behind alone. It was understood that she and Alb did everything together.
They had always done everything together, especially after Alb had retired. Coach trips to nice places, shopping trips to the big department stores where Alb sat while she tried on things. Then when he had died so suddenly she had felt so strange. She just could not take in the fact that he had gone and left her. Yes, she remembered now, she had been angry at his leaving her like that. He had always known how helpless she was. The funeral was a hazy memory in her mind. She remembered both her sons and their wives, prim and correct in black. But someone had worn red…Maude strained to remember, had it been she? Why had she done that, why had they let her?
Maude recalled her younger daughter-in-law saying in shocked tones: “What will the people in the village think?”
Patrick, bless him, had replied: “Let her do as she wishes. It does not matter.”
Patrick and his father had always had a lot in common, poring over maps and guidebooks, going for long solitary walks. Maude had resented that, wanting her son always with her in the short times they had together. She had, after all, just lived for her sons’ visits. She had never made any real friends in the village where, as she told everyone, she did not belong, being a Londoner.
There were overtones of pride in her voice when she said that and the villagers sensed that she looked down on them while she complained that in that close knit Devon community she was an outsider and would always remain so.
Alb had been involved in the church and in the village, ready to help anyone with anything he could…. he had been happy in Devon where he had chosen to retire although he too was a Londoner born and bred. Well, he had gone and died and she was not going to stay on where, she had always told him, she had never been really happy and so she sold the house.
Her sons had suggested an old folks’ home. “After all, Mother,” they had said, “you don’t want to be bothered with housekeeping and you will be well taken care of.” Maude would have liked them to say: “We’ll look after you,” but no one had said it. She had overheard them talking it over in the small flat Patrick rented when he was back in the country.
“Obviously she can’t live with Noni and me”, Patrick had said, “with our nomadic life style that would be impossible. You know she can’t stand anything foreign, food, people.”
“Well,” Doug had replied, “much as we love Mother, Jayne and I think it would be unfair to ask her to uproot herself and relocate to New York, she’d be afraid to go out by herself and Jayne and I both work full time.”
Together, her sons had found a nice small Home for healthy elderly folk, well within her means after she had sold the house in Devon. They had talked a great deal about being able to live within her means, had mentioned inflation and explained about investing in the Building Society and she had listened without comprehension just as she had
when they tried to explain about banking and writing cheques, things she had never ever done.
Of course, everything her boys said was right and she had been as happy in the Home as it was in her nature to be. She had her own room and bath and the meals were just the sort she liked, good joints of meat with two veg and a nice sweet. She had never fancied the food her daughters-in-law cooked although her boys always told her what fantastic cooks Jayne and Noni were, which must mean they liked that kind of food. All kinds of unrecognizable meat and fish done in queer tasting sauces, never a nice gravy with it; garlic, onion and peppers, they used such a bewildering array of ingredients, while she had only ever used white pepper and salt.
The boys came once a year to see her and sometimes the grandchildren came too and they all wrote her letters. Maude had always loved writing and receiving letters. She had always been meticulous about writing thank you letters, notelets, postcards. The written word had been her only real bridge to family and friends.
For her birthday and at Christmas they sent her generous cheques. “So much better for you to buy yourself something you like or need”, they had said and of course, after the first pang of disappointment (she loved parcels and surprises) was past she realized that it was, indeed, much better that she buy herself what she wanted. Once her oldest grandson had sent her a hamper full of the most extraordinary things: runny
smelly cheeses, curious looking eggs and cured meats, even alcohol! And not even a sweet sherry at that. Ah well, there had been some chocolates, she remembered, and those had been lovely…
Maude loved soft toys and she had quite a collection. There was a magnificent spotted and striped woollen snake that had always lain across her door and excluded draughts. Alb had bought that for her when she complained of the cold in the little Devon house. There was an array of Teddy Bears that sat on her bed and dressing table, there was a monkey and that had been joined by a koala bear sent by her grandson in Australia.
Then one year Doug had bought for her the largest, most gorgeous
looking Paddington Bear that he could find. So handsome in his blue coat, large hat and lovely shiny boots. Every time Maude wrote to Doug she signed her letter with lots of love from Mother and Paddie. She wrote about Paddie every week, saying what good company he was, so bright and handsome. She knew that made Doug happy.
Patrick had given her a beautiful Siamese cat, so lifelike was its fur and periwinkle blue eyes that she swore she sometimes just couldn’t believe he wasn’t real. She had named him Timmie. Her letters to Patrick always ended with love from Mother and Timmie. She knew Patrick would be delighted by the success of his gift. Paddie bear sat on her bed and Timmie Cat lay on her tea trolley, paws tucked in, tail neatly curled over. And every letter to each son spoke of the animals as if they were alive. The sons and their wives smiled when they read the letters. “Ga-ga”, they sometimes remarked. Maude never mentioned Paddie Bear to Patrick nor Timmie the cat to Doug.
When Maude had her stroke she had been rushed to the hospital and had remained unconscious for a while. Her sons were informed that her condition was serious, Doug in New York and Patrick in Beijing. The sons telephoned each other. Neither of them could make it back to the U.K. just then. Doug added that as he was now retired he could not really afford the fare. Each thought the other ought to go. “After all,” Doug pointed out to his brother, “you can get a compassionate fare back from the government, no one’s going to pay for me.”
Maude lay alone in her hospital bed. She wondered what was to become of her. If she was disabled the Home wouldn’t take her back, they catered only for the healthy. She could not expect Doug to take care of her; he had retired and now only had a Company pension. She had heard about `golden handshakes’ but could not accustom herself to the idea that her elder son was extremely well off. Alb’s pension after thirty years service had not been munificent and even that had gone when Alb died.
Patrick, she was sure, would one day soon be made an ambassador. She could not be a millstone round his neck. She opened her eyes and saw what at first she had thought she had imagined. Paddie bear sat on the end of her bed, carefully placed so that she would see him the moment she opened her eyes. Nurse Carter tiptoed in and Maude saw that she had Timmie in her arms. Seeing Mrs Marston’s eyes open, she smiled and said: “Your elder son called from America and said to be sure the bear was the very first thing you would see because he was sure it would make you feel better. Then your second son called and said we must get you Timmie to cuddle. Aren’t they cute?” she held out the cat that was not a cat at all and lifted up the bear.
Mrs Marston could not turn away her head so she closed her eyes as she had done before.
She knew that nothing would ever be the same again. It was all a sham but she could not tell where and why everything seemed to have gone wrong.