by Mita Ghose
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Baba drops the telephone receiver into its cradle with a sharp click. ‘He’s not coming home this year either,’ he mutters.
Ma’s tone is shrill. ‘I don’t understand that wimp of a principal! How can he allow a teenage boy to dictate to him?’ Her voice breaks and the words tumble into the crack. Beneath her blusher her cheeks are sunken, the colour of ash. Ma’s using make-up these days. Lots of it. She’s also started wearing saris in shades that hurt the eyes. ‘Tarty colours,’ she called them once. They make her look old, older than Baba. ‘That boy needs a few lashes of the cane to teach him what’s what!’ she snaps. ‘Why doesn’t that imbecile of a principal understand?’ Her pale palms lie upturned on her lap, forgotten, useless.
‘Personally, I think it’s immensely reassuring that Father Bryant understands his boys so well. He realizes that bright, promising youngsters like Rono wouldn’t fib about something so serious just for the hell of it.’
‘You don’t for a minute believe...?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘That miserable wretch wouldn’t dare say such a thing!’
‘Oh, yes, he would. My son dares. Unlike his sorry mess of a father.’
‘You swine!’ Ma’s voice is a hiss of steam as her body uncoils from the sofa. ‘How dare you insinuate there’s even a jot of truth to the filth the boy’s been spouting! And about his own grandfather!’
‘He caught the bastard at it, didn’t he?’
‘Don’t you call my father names! That son of yours needs psychiatric treatment! What did Babai ever do but show love for his grandchild? Everyone knows he dotes on her!’
‘So he does. And I can’t sleep nights wondering what really went on in that house in Deoghar when he took her there on holiday year before last!’
Ma’s off the sofa now. ‘You sanctimonious bastard,’ she whispers. ‘Who are you to point fingers? What about the scandal you’ve created in your own home? And with scum from the gutter! Your beautiful “widow” in white! You think I haven’t figured out what that bitch’s fainting fits are all about? How about telling Rono that he just missed having a bastard brother or sister to play with? I’d love to see what he thinks of his precious Baba then! What was it, by the way? A bonny boy? Or a cute little girl who would’ve followed in her mummy’s footsteps?’
Baba’s large body looks weightless as it spins in her direction. His hand rises like a saw. No. Please, God. He stops. He’s noticed me on the balcony where I’ve been polishing his shoes for the last half-hour. Back and forth goes my brush. Right to left. Left to right. I can’t make my hands stop. ‘Hey, that’s enough for now, Babe!’ Baba calls to me. ‘You don’t want Kalidas to pack up his kit and go back to his village to starve, do you?’
As though I were going to earn my living sitting at the gate of our apartment complex like our mochi! So what if I love polishing shoes? It’s just a hobby—ther-a-peu-tic, as Ranjan Da says, like reading, painting or playing the guitar like Rono, my Dada, my big brother. I’m actually going to be an astronaut, with my own spaceship that’ll take me far away to another planet. Mars, Jupiter…Ur-an-us. But I know what Baba means: ‘This is a war zone. Get out.’
I feel his eyes on me cold as the North Pole as I put the brushes, rags and tins of polish back into my shoebox. I carry the box carefully to the closet next to the front door. My hands are shaking. I have to go to the bathroom. I keep my thighs squeezed tight as I place Baba’s shoes neatly on the rack beside Ma’s new grey leather pumps. Grey like her hairline which used to be black last year. Grey under the angry red henna she now uses. Next to the red is her face—a dead grey, like the haunted house down the street with its windows shut forever. Baba’s hair is grey too, all over, as grey as the papery skin under his eyes. The rest of him is golden brown like a sponge cake that’s just come out of the oven. It makes his teeth look white as the toothpaste ads on TV. Sneha too, is grey these days, a soft, mushy grey that melts into the walls which used to be white many years ago. I wonder how that could be, because her skin is soft pink, her eyes green-brown and her saris white as Baba’s teeth.
Once inside the bathroom I slam the door shut and slap down the lid of the potty seat. It’s cold to the touch, cold under my flattened thighs. As cold as Darjeeling so many years ago when Dada pinched his nostrils and whined, ‘Ohhh, my sinuses!’ just like Ka in the Jungle Book movie. It was he who said when he left for Darjeeling last year, ‘I hate you all. Especially you,’ to Baba, who flinched. Dada who now won’t come home from school. For my last birthday he handed me a sheet of lined paper with a drawing of a stick figure on it, its braids standing up like horns, the mouth a big round ‘O.’ That was me bawling my head off. I didn’t know till that moment that I loved my Dada almost as much as I love Shah Rukh Khan.
Dada, who’s always at Ranjan Da’s when he’s not studying or playing football. Dada, who hates to be home. If he has to stay in, he’s restless, like those bats zooming up and down the stairwell at night in the house in Deoghar. When he gets that way, I can’t stand it. He has this thing about rapping his knuckles on the glass of my aquarium to watch bug-eyed Rambo, my fighter, go crazy. He knows it’ll start me shrieking, ‘Stoppit! Stoppit! You shala haramjada shuorer chhana!’ Ranjan Da taught me those bad words, and I love them. Dada uses those words all the time. He knows exactly what makes me cranky, what makes me cry. So he can chant, ‘Skinny Minnie, crybaby! Skinny Minnie, rave rave rave! Skinny Minnie, rant rant rant! Skinny Minnie, sob sob sob.’
Idiot. ‘Minnie’! As though he doesn’t know my real name. And I have so many, more than him, more even than Ranjan Da, who’s Khokon, Dadababu, Chhorda and Shubhoranjan to different people. I am many people, all at the same time. Ma calls me De-bo--a double karate chop that makes my brain soggy like cold noodles when I hear it. To Dada, I’m Hulo, a tomcat yowling all the time. Ranjan Da calls me Bonty. To Keka, my friend at school, I’m Debbie. Keshto Da calls me Puchkey. I’m Chhoto Mem to Kalidas and Khoki to Bansi, Mr Kanodia’s durwan. To Miss Tomkins, I’m ‘the Terror.’ And Sister Paula calls me Devleenah, with her voice going all the way up on ‘nah’ like Sister Braganza’s cre-scen-dos, when Miss Tomkins reports me for disrupting the class. Sneha, whose job is to look after me. She calls me Shona-mona, and to Baba, I’m Babe. Both mean darling, sweetheart, honey, love… They said so. All lies.
De-bo-li-na is the Cobra’s name for me. Debolina, his wife, my Dida--Ma’s mother. She died just before Ma’s fifth birthday. Her picture on the bedroom wall of the house in Deoghar is grey, a flat dead grey, as though she was never there, even when she was alive. De-bo-li-na. The moment I think of it I see the Cobra’s yellow eyes, yellow teeth. I hear the sound of his yellow nails, scraping. It’s De-bo-li-na’s fault that Ma threw her Big Fit and Baba threw his after Dada caught the Cobra red-handed. It’s all because of De-bo-li-na that Dada is now at boarding school. Because of her he needs a few lashes to teach him what’s what. De-bo-li-na is a shaitan. ‘De-bo-li-na’ will always hurl me back to the day I vomited when the Cobra asked me if I wanted to go with him again to Deoghar and Ma said, ‘Why not? It’ll do her good.’
Why am I always thinking of De-bo-li-na? There are so many other me’s to think about: Hulo. Bonty. Debbie. Chhoto Mem. Khoki. Even the Terror and Devleenah. Babe. But, no. There’s no Babe now. Not anymore. And Shona-mona is gone too. Even if Ma’s words keep bringing those names back to me and everything they once meant. Ma’s words. ‘Your widow.’ Dada with a bastard to play with. Baba’s beautiful widow. Baba and Sneha. The Cobra and me. Shaitans. And Dida’s dead grey eyes looking down at us from her dead grey face in the picture. Dirty grey. Dirty.
There’s a rap on the bathroom door. It’s beginning to open. I hurl myself at it and slam it shut again. Why didn’t I lock it? I lean against it with my whole body and slip the bolt across. I’m sweating and shivering. My nails scratch at the wood. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Black nails, not yellow.
‘What’s wrong, baby? Are you ill? Why have you locked the door? Open up, Shona.’ Sneha’s voice. Far away.
Sneha. Baba. Ma. Dada. All far away. De-bo-li-na alone. Alone with the Cobra.
The Cobra smoothing the hair back from De-bo-li-na’s face with his yellow nails, hissing, ‘Shhh…shhh…’ as she lies shivering and crying. Crying all night for Baba. But Baba never hears. He’s far away, clasping Sneha’s soft pink hand, smoothing the hair back from her face as she lies, her white sari crushed on the floor. In our grey house. But no dirty-grey picture of Debolina on the wall. Debolina is dead.
Baba’s bunched fist. Ma screaming. Dada gone. Just Sneha. Baba. Ma. Cobra. De-bo-li-na.
Cobras right inside our house, our grey house with no grey picture on the wall. Cobras lying together, tongues flicking, locking and unlocking slowly, like in the English movie Ranjan Da was playing for Dada in his flat once when I went up to fetch him because Ma wanted him to come down and do his homework. De-bo-li-na sees, from inside my mind, the cobras lashing their gleaming tails, soft pink and golden brown, rippling and slithering before coiling together in a tight throbbing knot that looks as though it can never be untangled. Cobras curled together, wrapped in each other, trembling in a close dance, not shivering and crying. Just hissing softly, deep in the throat, like a purr that turns into a moan. Pink mouths opening and closing, moaning ah, ahhh, ahhhh, the sound filling my thumping heart with terror. Then silence. The cobras half-smiling at each other, still entangled, green-brown eyes drooping, teeth bared sparkling white like in a toothpaste ad, ready to strike anyone who disturbs them.
The bruises on Ma’s face turning purple. Sobbing all day. De-bo-li-na, curled around her pain, crying all night. Debolina staring down, blind. Seeing nothing.
‘Go away.’ De-bo-li-na’s voice, all splintered.
‘Please, Shona-mona! Open up. I can tell you’re ill….’
De-bo-li-na spits into the washbasin. The bitter taste stays in my mouth. De-bo-li-na turns on the cold-water tap and splashes my face with water. Splash splash. She rinses out my mouth. The bitterness is like a furry grey leech on my tongue. De-bo-li-na stares into the mirror. She sees my face. Flat. Blurred. Grey. Like the face of the other Debolina. Dirty.
‘Shona, please open the door. You’re scaring me! Please, Shona-mona!’
From the bathroom ceiling I hear
De-bo-li-na’s screams explode in my ears. ‘Get away! GET AWAY FROM ME,
‘Why does Sneha wear white?’ I ask Ma.
‘Stop bothering me,’ she says, stepping into her shiny new heels with a grimace. I notice a new strip of Bandaid just above the back of each shoe. ‘I’m late for work already.’ She snatches up her handbag.
‘Baba, why does Sneha wear white?’
‘She’s a widow,’ he says, not looking up from the suitcase he’s packing.
‘Widow-shidow. My foot!’ says Ma. ‘All those yards of white are just a bad cover-up for a tart fallen on hard times.’ She looks at Baba sideways, sharp as a knife.
‘Can’t keep that cobra’s tongue in check, can you?’ Baba snaps.
Ma sniffs. ‘Pure as the driven snow, is she? With those looks? Well, Daddy knows best, doesn’t he.’ She’s looking at me, but I know she’s talking to Baba. She does this all the time.
Baba stabs Ma with a stare. She stabs right back.
‘What’s a tart?’ I ask.
‘Never mind,’ Baba says. ‘No school today?’
I catch Dada on his way out, dragging his schoolbag. He’s in a hurry and one of his shoelaces is undone. He’ll trip and fall. Then I’ll laugh. ‘Why does Sneha wear white?’
‘Why does Sneha…?’
But Dada’s already out the door. ‘How should I know?’
I corner her in the kitchen. ‘Why only white, Sneha?’
‘Drink up your milk fast,’ she says. ‘You know your Ma.’
My eyes stray to the pickle jars on the shelf I can’t reach. ‘I want the tamarind one.’
‘You can want all you like. The last time I gave you some, you came out in a rash and your Ma bit my head off.’
‘Please, please, please!’
‘You’re a stupid tart!’
Sneha’s eyes freeze over like ice cubes. They remain frozen all day.
At four o’clock she braids my hair, tugging it tight. She changes my frock and gives me milk in my favourite mug with a smiling tomato painted on the side. She sprinkles dry Bournevita on top. She knows I like to tease the granules with a spoon. She’s still not speaking to me. I don’t care. I’m not speaking to her either. Stupid tart.
That’s why I go to Ma instead of Sneha just before dinner and tell her, ‘I feel funny.’
‘You’re not going to start that again?’ Ma says, her eyes on the TV. She’s watching Shah Rukh Khan dancing with Kajol. I love Shah Rukh more than anyone. I watch him turn Kajol upside down. Doesn’t she feel giddy?
‘Besides,’ says Ma suddenly, ‘there’s your favourite capsicum chicken and orange-flavoured kheer tonight. Made especially for you.’ But when she turns to look at me her face changes. ‘Oh, God!’ she says. ‘Why can’t you fall ill when your father’s in town?’
‘Work, work and more work,’ she says. ‘Your Dad’s one helluva busy man. Busy as a beaver—the older, the busier. At home and abroad.’ She turns to stare at Sneha. Her laugh’s like a sharp knife: You don’t know you’re cut till you notice the blood welling up.
But I don’t know what she’s talking about. I just want to crawl into bed and stop the Bournevita from coming back up. I run towards the bathroom, but I don’t make it. Out it all comes on the threshold.
‘Yuck!’ says Dada, standing at a safe distance. ‘Yuck, yuck, yuck!’
I puke all night. In the morning Sneha raps on Ma’s bedroom door.
‘What a mess! And what a stink! Clean it up, will you, Sneha? I’ll call the doctor before I leave for work. What timing. Her Dad’s girl all right. I can’t take a day off. Year-closing and all that.’
The doctor’s specs glitter, so I can’t see his eyes. I dive under my blanket, cling to it and shiver.
‘Come on, let go,’ says Ma in the kind of voice she puts on when visitors are around. ‘Doctor Uncle needs to have a look at you.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I’m cold.’
‘Don’t give me a hard time!’ she snaps in her normal voice. ‘My ride will be here any minute.’
She yanks off the blanket and whacks me hard. The doctor is shocked. He picks up my wrist as though it’s something dirty and jabs my chest with his ice-cold snaky stethoscope. Then he takes out a syringe from his black bag, and I immediately start to bawl.
Ma stares at me and I abruptly stop. When the needle goes into my arm I don’t even make a peep. I sleep the rest of the day.
Sneha lays her cool palm over my forehead. ‘A little soup,’ she cajoles. ‘Just a sip.’
Sometime in the night I wake up. The Cobra is standing over my bed. His tongue flicks out and licks my lips. It nudges its way into my mouth and coils tightly around my tongue. ‘Baba!’ I try to scream, but my tongue is locked. ‘Baba!’ I scream again as the Cobra’s tail lashes out and coils around my tummy and legs, thick, blue-black, glistening, thrashing and squeezing its way in, hurting, hurting, hurting. I see Baba walking down a dark, narrow tunnel. Walking away from me, getting smaller and smaller and smaller. ‘Baba, Baba, Baba!’ I scream. He doesn’t look back. Gone.
I wake up sweating. My heart’s trying to jump out of my chest. I look for Sneha in the dark. She’s not there. I start to cry.
‘Here I am. Silly girl!’
‘I saw the Cobra,’ I whisper.
‘Just a bad dream, Shona.’ She won’t believe me if I tell her he was right on my bed. She wipes me off and dusts me down with talc. She covers me up and opens a window. Then she stands by it, staring out. In the moonlight she looks as white as her sari—a ghost.
I’m too scared to tell her I’m scared.
‘What are you looking at?’ I ask just to see if it really is Sneha.
‘My life,’ she says.
She doesn’t hear me.
‘Please, please, please! I’m so scared!’
She gives me a long look as though she doesn’t remember who I am. Then she comes and squats on the floor by my bed. ‘My baby,’ she whispers, her hand trembling on my blanket, ‘my poor, dead baby!’
‘I’m not dead, Sneha,’ I say.
She buries her face in her white pallu. Her shoulders shake. I’ve never seen her cry.
‘I said, I’m not dead!’
‘Shhh…. I didn’t mean you.’
‘Aren’t I your baby?’
‘Of course, Shona-mona.’
‘Don’t you love me?’
‘What a silly question!’
Stupid tart, I think. Crying for
nothing. She rubs her face hard with one hand and gives me the other so
that I can hold on to her little finger. My eyes close, shutting out the
ghost in white.
‘Ah!’ says Baba, looking at the newspaper he’s just unfurled, smoothing out the creases with a lot of crackling sounds. ‘Saturday. Time for the Cobra to strike again.’
Ma turns and stares at him, her jaws clenched like fists. Baba doesn’t look up. If he did he’d turn into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife. Sister Celine told us about Lot’s wife last week in Scripture class.
The Cobra comes to visit every Saturday. Except when he’s away in Bangkok on business. Or on holiday in Deoghar. ‘King Cobra, up to no good in his Black Hole,’ says Baba. ‘All those little girls the lonely old widower employs from the neighbouring village to cook and clean and fetch for him, far away in his country home. All those unsuspecting little girls,’ Baba murmurs.
‘Love to wallow in all that concocted filth, don’t you?’ Ma spits every time Baba talks like that.
It’s Saturday, when my parents don’t go to work. Saturday, when they have lots of time to fight. Saturday, when everything goes wrong.
I remember the Saturday morning when Ma read aloud the bit from a news- paper about a well-known nursing home dumping hospital waste in its back- yard. Blood-soaked bandages. Gangrene-infected arms and legs. Dead foetuses. Sneha, who had just finished serving tea, suddenly turned white and keeled over. Thump. The tray slipped out of her hand and landed beside her with a clatter, clatter. I could hear it long afterwards, long after Baba knocked over his teacup as he sprang out of his chair to attend to her where she lay sprawled on the floor, her long hair fanned out around her, her pallu flung from her body. My ears were still ringing with the sound as Baba knelt feeling for her pulse and smoothing her hair back from her chalk-white face. His own face was grey. His hands trembled.
Ma didn’t budge from where she was sitting. Her face was stone, her unblinking eyes fixed on the Sneha. And I saw what I had never seen before: how fair and silky the skin was where Sneha’s hip dipped sharply into the hollow of her waist, how deeply her belly button dimpled, so high above her petticoat string. I saw her big dark nipples straining against the thin white of her blouse, the two top buttons gone, sweat crawling like a worm down the hollow between her breasts. I saw Ma’s eyes on Baba and Sneha. Back and forth. ‘Oh, not to worry,’ she laughed, a sound like glass being scraped with a knife. ‘She’s alive all right. But just to be absolutely sure, shouldn’t you call the doctor? Better than just sitting there holding her little pink hand…. But maybe there are warmer, more promising places your hand would rather be.’
I was home when Baba caught Ma by the hair and slapped her hard, slapped her and slapped her. I was home when the doctor came to look at Sneha, home all day to hear Ma’s sobs leaking out from under the locked door of her bedroom. Because on Saturdays I don’t have school. I don’t have school on Sundays either.
On Saturdays I get to polish shoes. Mine, Baba’s and Dada’s too, until Dada left for boarding school. Ma doesn’t let me touch hers. She sends them down to Kalidas, the mochi who sits at the entrance to our apartment complex, next to the gate of Mr Kanodia’s big white house. Kalidas has been polishing shoes all his life.
‘Keep your paws off my footwear,’ Ma warns when she catches me eyeing her shoes. She has so many. Black, burgundy, chocolate and white. Navy blue, bottle green and cream. Silver and gold and bronze. But no reds. No yellows.
She scoffs at Baba when he tells her that I do a better job than Kalidas. I’ve watched Kalidas brush the shoes clean of dust and caked mud, then smear polish on with his finger and let it ‘air’ before attacking the leather furiously with a second brush. Then he takes an old soft rag and, stretching it in a taut line, skims it back and forth over the leather the same way I’ve seen Keshto Da, the sweeper, rub his back dry with his checked red gamchha after a bath. Then he adds his finishing touch—a gob of spit—and swipes the rag back and forth across the leather till it gleams like nobody’s business and you can see your face in it.
I want a kit like the one Kalidas has. You should see all those brushes, the little cans of polish, the collection of tins full of shiny little needles and nails, the strips of black and brown leather. And the spools of thread, the shoelaces in black, white and brown, the rags, all stained, some darker than others. The only thing I don’t like in that kit is a bright yellow square of polishing cloth he recently bought. ‘Get a red one next time,’ I tell Kalidas every time I pass him on my way in or out of the gate. He grins up at me with his lovely paan- stained teeth. I asked Baba to get me a kit exactly like the one Kalidas has, and he laughed. Then I asked Kalidas where I could buy one, and he laughed too. Finally I asked Sneha.
‘Hush!’ she scolded. ‘Don’t let your Ma hear you. A mochi’s tools? She’d throw a fit.’
That would be nothing new. Ma throws fits all the time. ‘Item numbers,’ Dada calls them. The biggest was on my last birthday, just before she sent Dada away to boarding school.
‘He’s gone crazy!’ she screamed, spit bubbling at the corner of her mouth when Dada told Baba, late at night, about the Cobra, and Baba told Ma. She slapped Dada with the back of her hand, cutting open his cheek with her ruby ring.
‘Stop it, you crazy bitch!’ Baba yelled, pushing Dada out of the way.
‘Oh, my God!’ Ma dropped onto a sofa and sobbed into her hands, her smeared kajal making her look like a weeping panda. ‘It’s all that scum’s fault! That friend of his—that pervert in schoolboy’s garb—Ranjan Whatshisname! I keep telling you, but you never listen! You’re too busy! We have to get him away from that bastard or he’ll end up a delinquent himself! Or in an asylum like your Aunt Jharna. God help me, what shall I do? What shall I do?’
It happened on a Saturday.
I know what day of the week it is today when Ma orders Sneha to marinate the chicken in milk and cook it with poppy-seed paste. I know it has to be Saturday when she tells Sneha to let the milk simmer for at least half an hour so it’s thick and creamy before she makes the kheer with kaju and kishmish (‘That’s cashew nuts and raisins,’ Miss Hendricks corrected me last month during English period. ‘Don’t you Bongs know the language at all?’). Ma usually doesn’t bother about what’s being cooked in the house. When she does, I know it’s Saturday. Especially when she tells me to wear the lemon-yellow dress the Cobra gave me on my last birthday.
‘No,’ I say.
‘What do you mean, no? I made Sneha let out the hem.’
‘Not that dress.’
‘Why not? It’s from Mademoiselle, and it’s more than your father could afford. That’s real Brussels lace on the collar.’
‘I don’t care. I hate yellow.’
‘We’ll see about that as soon as I’m out of the kitchen.’
Yellow. The colour of egg yolks. I spat them out on my breakfast plate at the hotel in Darjeeling where we had gone on holiday when I was three. Ma walked me all the way to the traffic policeman at the junction and told him what I’d done. The policeman looked down at me from his yellow box, his eyes like slits, and told me it was a very serious offence to spit out egg yolks. That if I did it again, he would be forced to punish me with his stick. I was too scared to cry.
Yellow is the colour of my report card in which Miss Phillips wrote last year, ‘Inattentive. Does not apply herself.’
Yellow is the colour of the jaundice that laid me flat for two whole months, year before last. Right after I came back from my grandfather’s house in Deoghar. The Cobra’s Black Hole, where the silk curtains in the bedroom are shiny yellow.
Yellow is the colour of the Cobra’s eyes burning into mine as he sat in our drawing room last year, alone with me on my birthday. Alone, while Baba was on the phone and Ma was in the kitchen. Dada was in the bathroom, and my best friend, Keka, hadn’t arrived yet. Sat alone, breathing in and out, in and out, deeper and deeper, staring at me as I sat shivering in my yellow birthday dress.
Yellow is the colour of the Cobra’s topaz ring. Yellow is the colour of his nails, crawling, stroking. Up and down, up and down, as he told me in a blurred whisper how pretty I looked. So, pretty, so pretty….
And yellow is the colour of my vomit when, two hours later, I threw up my slice of birthday cake along with my lunch.
Yellow, yellow, dirty fellow, Dada teased when Ma unwrapped the dress the Cobra had bought and made me wear it. Before Dada came back out of the bathroom and saw what the Cobra was doing. Before he told Baba about it that night. Before Ma threw her Big Fit. And Baba threw his—the only time Baba ever threw a Big Fit.
But Baba shut up soon afterwards. He shut up after Ma screamed, ‘You dare talk? You think I don’t know what’s going on in this house? Maybe you’d like me to tell your son about that--your mixed-up fool of a son? And you believe him, instead of whipping him straight like you should!’
Not a word from Baba.
And he’s back again today, the Cobra. As he is every Saturday. The box of sweets he’s brought for us, wrapped in gold paper, lies open on the table. Ma is arranging them on a big plate with a gold border. Big, yellow laddoos, silvered over with foil. Yellow sohan papri, sprinkled with slivers of almond. Fat yellow kamala bhog, swimming in syrup. I struggle to keep the vomit down. Ma’s made pulao. Lemon-yellow, flecked with kishmish and half-moons of kaju. I swallow and look at Ma’s face, pink and shiny, hovering around a smile. She doesn’t make a sound, but I can tell she’s humming inside.
I look at Sneha setting down a jug of chilled water on the table. Her eyes meet the Cobra’s, and she turns red. She looks at Baba, then whips back to the kitchen. I look at the Cobra. He’s staring at the door through which Sneha has just left, his eyes gleaming with a yellow light. Then I look at Baba. His eyes are on the Cobra’s face, and his face is tight as if it’s going to burst. The skin where his collar cuts into his neck is bright red.
‘De-bo-li-na?’ says the Cobra suddenly, smiling with his yellow teeth. ‘Want to go for a l-o-n-g holiday with me to Deoghar this summer?’
‘Why not?’ says Ma, spearing each ball of kamala bhog with a toothpick. Jab. Jab. ‘It’ll do her good. She’s been looking peaky after that bout of typhoid last month. And she hasn’t been to Deoghar for years.’
‘You won’t keep crying for your Baba this time, will you, De-bo-li-na?’ murmurs the Cobra. His yellow nails won’t stop playing with the stiff white folds of his dhoti. Up and down they go, up and down. ‘You’re a big girl now, aren’t you, De-bo-li-na?’
Baba stiffens in his chair, his fists bunched. But I can’t wait to see if he’ll stop the Cobra from taking me away again to his Black Hole. I don’t even hear the crash as my chair overturns. I’m in too much of a hurry to get to the bathroom.
Read another story in Gowanus by Mita Ghose:
(Mita Ghose completed her academic
career at the Sorbonne in Paris and then went on to work as a teacher of
French and as a translator. Personal circumstances, emotional and otherwise,
eventually led her to writing, and the result has been a stream of articles,
short stories, travel pieces and book reviews, published in some of India’s
leading news- papers, including The Statesman, The Telegraph and
Times of India.