Autumn-Winter 2003

by Anjana Basu


This Issue

Back Issues
Her mother bought bras as emerald green as poison, as scarlet as passion or greed. She remembered their screaming brightness against the dismal yellow wall-papered flat. There, in her imagination, it always rained, so that the lights burned the whole day long and the paraffin stove panted occasional gusts of oily breath.

Her reason told her there must have been sunny days when she skipped down the hill to school, but her imagination allowed her no such comfort. In her mind, the brightest thing in those dreary London days were the bras. “Don’t tell your father,” her mother warned her, flashing a sliver of lace in the mirror. Later, she was to realise that the warning was because they had no money, that her mother scrimped pennies from the weekly shopping and put them together in a shower of black and emerald net. But then, she was jealous. She thought her mother was buying those bras to flaunt at another man, so she always told. And, afterwards, inevitably, the beatings followed.

It was a scene set for violence, the peeling yellow wallpaper with the rash of
red coin spots, the garish bras, the dim burning electric bulbs and the shrieks that were her mother, shrieks that melted into her own desperate sobbing. Her mother had never wanted her in the first place. She told her that some- times, in between slappings.

”Once upon a time,” she later told Ravi, “when I was born, they invited six fairy godmothers to the christening…well, no, rice ceremony. Three of them were good and three were wicked and whatever one said, the other immed- iately cancelled out.” One gave her chiselled features, the other said, “chis- elled like wood.” One gave her length of limb, the other said, “and she will be fat.” And the two last were the worst of all. One said, “She will be her
father’s pride and joy…” and the other pronounced, “…so her mother will do nothing for her.” The good fairies promptly twittered together in indignation and tied a silver talisman around her neck to prevent this. ”But,” her mother told her, viciously yanking a comb through the knots in her hair, “you chewed it out of shape, so I took it off and look what happened!” Her mother wanted a sugarplum daughter to wear pink ballet dresses and turn on her toes. Some- one who would be a credit to her own looks. “Instead, you turned out to look like your father.” And she would turn in mid-yank to the mirror, her lips moving to kiss the reflection that swam out of the silver lake. White swan, white swan, let my mother grow feathers and swim away and forget me sitting here with my hair around my ears.  But her mother never forgot: she did her duty with wire brush and twisted black clips, until the little girl was turned out with aching head and flaming slapped cheeks.

”No,” Ravi told her, ruffling her black head, “you’re not ugly.” And he said
it every time she asked for reassurance.

Perhaps the six fairies hadn’t really existed, perhaps she had dreamt them
out of her mother’s six old aunts. But there had been, it seemed, a Brahmin
who had timed her birth with a stopwatch and forecast her life on withered
parchment and cast the talisman into the bargain. Afterwards, her mother 
hastily tied its battered silver lump around her neck again. “And all that
did was keep you alive!” She would finger that lump as if it could keep the
beatings from her, but it never did. The only thing that worked was the
mirror and the bras. “Look, Ma, there’s a new one,” she would point out as they walked down the High Street. It was the only time her mother’s face melted into a smile. “Yes, you’re right, yes, that’s a new one. I wonder how
much...” And they would walk into the shop and her mother would turn the
slither of satin over and over in her hands until the girl thought it would
grow wings and fly away in protest. She imagined a beautiful woman wearing
humming birds brighter than the brightest bra.

They said her mother was beautiful. Everyone turned to look at her in the
High Street, a splash of colour through the grey London day, trailing silks.
She tilted her face this way and that in a plate-glass window reflection, even 
in a puddle, then she would catch sight of the girl and the beauty darkened. People came up to talk to her mother: lots of “Loves, what are you doing tonight, darlings?” No, not “people,” men of all shapes and colours, black, white and pink. “I’ll tell my father!” she stamped, when she dared. The jealousy was all her own. She was afraid of being left alone in that damp yellow flat—things might come out of the TV set, a pair of hands to chase her behind the cupboards and fasten around her throat. Her mother kept leaving her alone. “I’m only going to the cinema on the top of the hill. Look, you can see it from the window. Only there.” She couldn’t bear being alone—she would walk round and round the maroon carpet for hours and finally burst out of the door onto the grey landing, there to peep out of the window to see her mother or someone coming home down the hill.

The top of her mother’s curly head would appear at the bottom of the window frame which was as high as she could see on her tiptoes. The moment she saw her, she would duck back into the flat, knowing the hands hadn’t got her this time and she could watch Andy Panda in safety. Her mother would flower at the top of the grey stairs, her red mouth curved into a smile, one hand patting the lacquered hair in place. The girl was stupid, she never knew enough to shut the door, she always got caught. “It isn’t safe,” her father had thundered, one of his rare storms. “Don’t open the door!” but she
refused to be locked in the flat with the Hands. But for her mother there was always the saving grace of the mirror—she would walk into the flat  prepared to explode, catch sight of her ghost in the glass and melt. Such a pretty ghost, such a bright-flowered-chiffon-and-roses ghost lost in the fogs of London.

Her father was as grey as the stairs and the smog that swirled on the winter
pavements. He seemed to bring the colourlessness with him out of the streets to smear on the wallpaper.  The child was always scared for him, as if her mother’s flame would burn him out. At night, she slept in her mother’s bed— her father had ordered it when, after a fever, she  awoke terrified of the darkness—but when her mother was asleep she tiptoed over the froggy slime of the linoleum to the guest bedroom door to see whether she could hear her father snoring. If she could, then the fire hadn’t burnt him for that day and he would awake safely in the morning. Very often, the night held nothing but the screams of police sirens and then she would sit outside the bedroom door, clutching the knob while the cold seeped through her brushed nylon pajama bottoms. There would be a beating for her the next morning and no father to save her from that.

Later, stupid with love, she wondered how she had kept her parents apart
for even a night, whether it was her fault. She asked Ravi once whether he
thought she was the reason. It was a blue day and she was walking back with
him to the office after lunch. A red-flagged procession was chanting its
mechanical way down the lane. Light-hearted, she twirled her flowered
parasol at it in salute. “No, I don’t think you could have been to blame,”
he told her, laughing at the salute.

”You spoil everything!” her mother had stormed after she asked, “Where’s
baba?” for the sixth time in a row. Later, her mother returned from shopping with her arms full of paper packages and a man trailing behind her. Uncle Samir, he offered her a wooden golliwog puppet with a smile as painted as the white slash on the puppet’s face. She resented him being there, as she resented the puppet. He came more and more often and baba was never home when he came, though once, one rare evening, her mother brought him  home in the evening and he and her father sat and drank cheers together while she claimed her place on her father's lap. “She’s getting far too old for that,” her mother complained. “You both spoil her! Samir brought her such a lovely puppet.” And the golliwog was brought out and Uncle Samir made him dance for them—he was good at that, she always got the strings tangled.

All happy families are alike, unhappy ones are unhappy in their own special
way. Her mother was on the phone more and more often. “Oh, I’m not wearing anything,” she would giggle. “No, I mean not wearing anything special, silly!”  She danced and wriggled with the heavy black instrument fixed on her ear like a bloodsucker. Her ear was red when she lowered it. “That was the police,” she told her father when the girl complained.  “They wanted to trace a man, so they made me talk to him.” She saw her mother in black and white cut out of the TV screen, all her colour bled into her bra. She didn’t know why she was so afraid of her mother going away, when it was her mother who beat her. Locked themselves both up in the small bathroom so no one could interfere while her father rattled the knob and demanded to be let in, rattled and rattled until finally the door caved in and she was safe again behind his back. “Why won’t you go! Both of you!” her mother screamed while the witch who lived upstairs thumped on their ceiling in protest.

”Men never go away,” her mother maintained, until the day her lover left her. Her father wasn’t the one who went away.

“Your mother’s so pretty,” the old ladies cooed to her outside Tesco. “You
must look like your father.” She cringed behind her mother and felt the slim
curves swell in appreciation.

”What was the talisman for?” Ravi asked. He didn’t use the word “talisman.”
 He used the local Bengali word, maduli—it was one of the problems her family had with him.

The talisman was a hard lump of silver that had its matching magic in a
purple stone worn by her mother. “So that her stars will not eat up the
child’s,” the Brahmin had said. Her father told her the story whenever she
wanted to know why her mother hated her so. Her mother’s tiger stars chasing her fleeing deer with emerald green eyes that burnt holes in the night. “You should forgive her, she is, after all very beautiful.” There was a look on
his face as if he had something bitter in his mouth when he said the words.
She showed Ravi a picture of curly hair and a dark brown mouth that he
shrugged politely at. She took the picture away feeling a fool: it was old- fashioned , too much lipstick, the hair crimped and sprayed into ordered

“He says I move like a song!” she heard the lips declare. “What do you know? Do either of you appreciate me?” At seven, she already knew more words than she was supposed to—she brought them out with the proper BBC accent that had her father’s relatives oohing in amazement.

Ravi was a man with the boneless grace of a puppet and a face that was a cross between a pirate’s and an eccentric professor’s. Every time she looked at him a little ball of gold burst fire inside her and she wondered whether her mother had ever felt that way. Her underwear was the plainest she could find, stark whites and blacks with not a trace of wanton greens. “I can hear it shrieking under my clothes,” she told Ravi before he had even set eyes on her underwear. The mirror showed her with white strips tied around her breasts and loins. He never said she moved like a song. In fact, love made her clumsy, all left hands and feet, and doors opened so close they hit her in the face.

Her mother was a woman trapped in a cage of mirrors. Wherever she turned, she found a mirror. One of the fairy godmothers came to visit—she looked like a walnut with as many folds—“Mirrors will be the end of you, Ira,” she murmured, and her mother clutched at the purple stone while the little girl involuntarily reached for her silver lozenge. “I won’t do anything Ma does,” she told herself again and again, but the gesture was automatic. Her mother’s mouth had crooked and she played a little part on the end of the long maroon sofa, stretching and pretending she was a cat in the sun. At least, the child thought that was what she was doing, rather than acknowledge the truth of the mirrors. Behind the bedroom door clung the rose satin animal her mother had hooked there—when the godmother was gone she would drape her cat length in it. Hard lace claws and glittering sequin eyes would frighten her asleep and then, in her dreams, the door would open and the wolf come in. He paused on the threshold with a growl before he sprang. It was like being tumbled by a wave, being caught up in a thunderstorm and rolled in grey cloud paws. “You were dreaming,” said her mother, the morning sunlight splintering around her in the mirror. She would look around, stunned by the brightness and see an empty room, pink rose satin rumpled across a stool. Her father was no wolf.

“You must give him time to finish his studies,” the godmother pleaded. “Then he will have more time for both of you.”

“My father was studying law,” she told Ravi. “He had those hours to com- plete. I thought she drove him away so she could beat me.”

“But why did she beat you?” 

A frustrated woman stranded among her satin in a city she didn’t know. There had been no one to tell the child why. “You look like your father,” she repeated. The words had set her staring at herself every time she looked into a mirror. “There’s nothing wrong with your face,” Ravi told her, over and over, how many times over again, holding her hand, kissing it sometimes in a stray quaint gesture. Her mother would never have believed that she could achieve a Ravi—she looked too like her father, after all. “Your father doesn’t deserve me,” dragging her home from shopping, a bursting brown paper bag clutched in the crook of one arm and smiles on her red mouth for all the men she passed. They fell around her, offering to carry the bag—occasionally, she let them.

The godmother fussed around for a few days, inspecting the ring and the
talisman in an aura of incense, making the whole flat smoky with it and
floating through the haze as if she really had fairy wings. The child’s father slept on two sofa cushions on the drawing room carpet. Fairy or not, the godmother's presence eased nothing—anger flared up and down the yellow walls on the occasions she was out shopping. “Why do I have to entertain your relatives? How long is she going to stay here? She has your father’s
ugly face,” she told the child and, bewildered, the child told her father, as she
told everything that confused her.

Her mother kept secrets—she smiled slyly into her mirror and locked her
bottom drawer. While the godmother was there she was smooth and sleeked
down with no trace of the rose-pink or emerald-green animal. “Hypocrite,”
the child would have spat, if she had known the word. That purple talisman ring, perhaps the only person it had worked on was her. A blonde plumber came home with them from Vanger. He hung around the bathroom making suggestions and chucking the child under her chin—she hated being chucked under her chin, her whole neck instinctively curled in protest and he laughed and did it again and again until her mother warned him, “You’ll break the child’s neck, Tony.” 

Tony with the cup of golden hair turned upside down on his head! She refused to call him “uncle.” The godmother brought a brief truce to the wars. After she left they broke out again—her schoolwork suffered. One day she cried and cried in class until they had to call in her mother and send her home.
“I can’t deal with this! How do you expect me to deal with this? I’m only...” How old? 25, 26? She imagined her own useless self at 26, locked behind a face she hated to meet in the mirror: dealing with a child and a studying husband in a strange city would be unimaginable, and her frivolous legend- of-a-beauty mother must have found it even more unimaginable.

There was an old suitcase upstairs. If you lifted the lid the satin would
slither out. Ravi didn’t want to see it. “No,” he protested and, “No,” again.

“You don’t want to understand me,” she accused.

“What has understanding you got to do with looking at your mother’s
underwear?”  The underwear was important to her, but whenever she tried to
explain, the words tangled her tongue. He would look sadly into her eyes
after one of those frustrated sessions and walk out of the house. “You’re
useless,” she could hear her mother say. “Not one ounce of my sex appeal.”
Not that her mother would have used those words—she would have talked of beauty and elegance, the bhadro bangali terms that went so badly with the
black lace and scarlet sequins.

Ravi quit his job, only telling her long after all their friends knew. And even
then his eyes never released hers for an instant. She wrote him a whole
series of poems, cries for help, which he took with him. They made love one
last time after that—he came to her house one evening when there was no
one home. He held her so tight she thought her bones would break. He’s
holding me, she told herself, I’m not holding him.

She was losing him, he was losing her. Loss spiralled into loss, though who
lost whom was difficult to say. She had the feeling that she was being left
out of a secret. 

“Where are you going ?” she had demanded when either of her parents left the flat, and they would give her everyday answers like the grocer, a matinee, the college, all the places she knew they went to, but she would not believe them. “What’s wrong with you!” her mother exploded, exasperated, shaking her off her bristly fur cuff. “Go inside and wait. You know your father will be back by three. I’m only going to the matinee. And don’t open the door to anyone!” Sometimes, when she was by herself in the flat, the phone would ring and she would pick up the crooked black receiver and hold it carefully to her ear. Once she heard a man’s voice say, "Are you alone, darling?” before she let the black thing fall out of her hand. It was Tony, it had to be Tony.

She had been sure her mother would never come back—she paced up and down the landing, hugging her desolation to herself. Once, the huge Alsatian who lived in the next-door flat came and licked her nose, a warm sloppy lick that made her laugh, but no one else came until her father dragged his briefcase home and then she was all around him, trying to protect him from the black phone.

 “I’m not your mother,” Ravi said. “I think you try and make me your
mother. I can’t be her.”

“I have to get him back into bed with me,” she thought. She bought herself
underwear as dark as her intent and looked at the limp bras in the mirror,
but all her eyes showed her were flashes of red and green, fresh drops of
blood on a sheet or new young grass, a little yellow, a little hungry, more
cat’s eyes than grass. Tony with the sweat trickling down his muscles—why did her mind run on Tony unless it was because he tried to tickle her—and how on earth could her mother have let him? The point was, she didn’t know.

One evening, her mother never came back from the movies. She remembered that evening because while she was pacing up and down the little silver talisman slithered down and fell at her feet. She was terrified. It meant she’d broken it, how could she tell anyone it had just fallen off of its own accord? That added to her panic: she picked it up waiting to feel her mother’s hand curl around her hair. Instead, the sky turned as silver as the talisman, then blackened. The shadows on the landing clustered thicker and thicker until the grey was black with them and behind her yawned the open mouth of the flat door—she had stupidly forgotten to switch on the light—and she stood lost in all that blackness, hoping to become a shadow herself, until a bulb abruptly flicked light into the place. The old gaffer was downstairs then, he hadn’t died and shrunk into his huge rubber gloves. There was someone alive somewhere. And then the phone rang.

She had almost forgotten Ravi sitting there, his eyes politely glazed with
boredom—when had that started? He used to look at her with a little
sparkle in them as she tilted her head and told him stories and she said to her
mother’s ghost, “See, I can enchant a man, see!” Ravi shuffled those long gazelle legs of his, did gazelles wear white baggy trousers? “I have to go,” he said and folded himself upright like an umbrella furling.

”When do I see you...?” 

She hadn’t meant to say that. Night closed on his face. “I thought you knew. I’m getting married next month.” 

Next month? When had that happened, after her mother didn’t come back from the movies or before? He held her tight and let her go. “I can’t be your mother.” He had said that before, the time he held her so tight she thought their bones would fuse together. As he was leaving he turned once, reluc- tantly, he couldn’t help himself, “I suppose she came home. Something must have gone wrong at the film.”

”No, she never came home.”

It was too late for the truth, then. Her father found her shivering on the
threshold of the flat clutching the broken talisman in her hand, staring at
the ringing phone. “Your mother’s gone away,” he told her, hefting her up
and taking her inside. The next day there was a godmother by her side who
explained very carefully that her mother had gone to heaven. Angels in scarlet bras? That was all she could imagine, expensive wax shop-window angels with compacts in their hands, powdering their noses. Then the wax ran molten down her cheek. Hot wax, when she’d expected relief at being spared more slaps.

Her mother had opened up a black hole in her life that all the satin in the
world could not fill.  Ravi was standing at the threshold staring at her before he went away to get married. “You never told me that. What happened.”

”She was running away with one of the men she met. They were killed in a car crash. The police were trying to ring us to get hold of baba.” 

A crumpled car stubbed like a cigarette against a concrete pillar in a dark night, the red fire of the tail lights still glowing, the boot forced open, spewing
satin. She never saw it—though the godmothers said it had been flashed on
TV: a silk lady and a fast life. Who had Tony been, had he been the plumber, or even Uncle Samir? Her mother, her father said to the older child, to the grown woman, had been a nymphomaniac who slept with any man she could find. Did she want to follow in her mother’s footsteps? That was in another country, he had caught her rummaging through the silk ruins of the trunk. She remembered his words the first time she slept with Ravi.

Sorrow, so much sorrow—they had never talked about love or grief or any of the things lovers in books talk about, just gazed lost into each other’s eyes or created a ritual of flesh on flesh. Was that all it had been about? Underwear? “You failed,” her mother said, powdering her nose in her mother-of-pearl compact. “I knew you would.” 

(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory is scheduled for publication in January 2003 by HarperCollins India. She is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her work has appeared  in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)