GOWANUS Winter 2000
By Alpa Sheth
flight arrival was announced three times in three different languages but
no familiar figure appeared to greet him. Rajiv scoured the myriad
faces crowding the entranceway. Numerous shades of brown and cream
visages were hooped together behind a chrome metal railing
which reflected back their anxious faces. He stood there watching
as fellow passengers were joyfully discovered, hugged and kissed
by their loved ones, sweat marking twin crescent moons under the
raised, engulfing arms. Unfortunate feet meshed like cog wheels
into wayward trolley castors. In the warm, clear night outside, cars
with flashing hazard lights were wedged into the gaps between tourist buses
and hotel courtesy coaches.
Rajiv pushed his head back and took a long deep breath, taking in the omnipresent Bombay stench that pervaded the thick, heavy air. Just as he was about to engage a taxi, a familiar white Fiat pulled up across the road. He watched as his young daughter Maya--trust her always to be late--dressed in a loose hanging blouse (was it her mother’s?) and a cotton sari, her unruly wavy hair tied hastily back in a clasp at the nape of her neck, ran hurriedly towards him. When did his little girl in mini skirts and pants graduate to saris? So the unsettling call about his daughter’s illness had been a ruse to get him over from London. He laughed at the deception, wasn’t that the age-old line used by servants when they requisitioned an out-of-turn leave to visit their native place? (‘Saab, I’ve received this telegram from my village. Please read me what it says’--knowing full well the contents--‘MOTHER SICK. COME IMMEDIATELY.’) He was suddenly happy to be there, the hanging tension of the past four days since receiving the call leaving him like the lifting of a bell jar, only now realizing how much he had missed this chaotic lovely smelly city, his family, his driver too. He would stay back, he decided impulsively, even if he had to give up his VP position in the multinational company.
But the figure approaching him was not his daughter but his wife Mina, he realized as she came closer. The short dash had brought a faint rush of color to her cheeks. She submitted to his outstretched arms shyly and he felt a stranger’s lithe and insubstantial body, flat like a chappati, as if someone had run a rolling pin over the well-contoured, kneadable flesh he had known so well. She disentangled herself swiftly, as if embarrassed by this display of affection in full view of the driver, and motioned towards the waiting car.
Inside the car, he gestured at her bare arms, neck and ears, and asked good-humouredly, ‘You’ve just come out of a bath to receive me?’
She looked uncomprehendingly at first and then following his gaze replied, ‘Oh, that. The jewelry hurts Maya when I touch her. How was your flight?’ but even as she said this, she dipped her head into a briefcase and pulled out an overstuffed folder. Without pausing for his reply, she handed him some colored, large-type pamphlets and began speaking rapidly of an illness he had never heard of, of hormones, adolescence, connective tissues. He saw wads of thick envelopes bearing foreign stamps with printed material, more information, she said, on this rare illness from all over the world. So all the while that she had been talking to him long-distance about relatives, neighbors, weddings, births, she had been researching, reading, highlighting, filing on this illness these past few months. He was too tired to take in the barrage of mixed-up information she was subjecting him to but held back his corporate urge to pare down the long-winded descriptions to the essentials, to grasp the prognosis and the treatment, to arrange it all into a neat, concise format and tick the appropriate box under the ‘action to be taken’ heading. His management experience had taught him that the most confused, complicated matter when organized systematically into small capsules of bulletted information (capable of being projected as overhead slides) became easy to comprehend and solve.
Sitting alongside Mina in the sultry summer night, he observed her translucent skin under the halogen lamps of this overilluminated city. The lights threw a yellowish hue on her smooth skin. Had she always looked so pale and fragile? Perhaps it was accentuated by the starkness of her face, devoid of any makeup, not even the bold red bindi on her forehead rubber-stamping her robust, housewifely authority. He wanted to see her face break into a smile displaying her deep dimples. He wished that she would at least squeeze his hand. Instead she rambled on about the doctors she had consulted. She mentioned many names, none of which meant anything to him, describing the visits to the consulting rooms, the long waits, the medical tests. He had the feeling of being at once there and elsewhere. Her words reached him in a language he had ceased to comprehend. As the car swung into the driveway of their apartment building, she warned Rajiv, ‘Maya has changed some. It is the drugs they give her.’ But her voice was lost in the sound of the dying engine and Rajiv was busy instructing the driver not to scratch his Louis Vuitton bags while carrying them in.
The lights in the hall were dimmed, casting long doleful shadows in the high ceilinged room. The vases were bereft of their usual fresh flowers. An air of muted despondency hung in the heavy sagging curtains. He enquired about the empty corner where the TV used to be. ‘It has been moved to the bedroom so that Maya can watch it while in bed.’ He removed his shoes and socks and lay them neatly in the shoe rack, something he had not done for months in his terraced London house, where he had teased them off only when undressing for bed and where they stayed all night tossed in any direction, until he slipped into them again the next morning.
He entered Maya’s bedroom. It was empty. It had the Harpic and camphor smell of a clean, unused room awaiting the arrival of a guest. There was a crisply bound medical encyclopedia and a neat stack of medical journals on the dresser which had once held an untidy maze of headbands, bangles and kitschy jewelry. He saw that his suitcases had been deposited in this single bedded room. He plopped onto the bed, suddenly very fatigued, his initial euphoria on coming home having completely evaporated. The house was eerily quiet. The servants seemed hushed, walking tiptoed around the place. Even the young girl Lila, not much older than Maya who came in to give him tea, no longer wore her melodious payals. ‘O, look how big you have grown,’ he remarked at which she smiled politely before retreating back into the kitchen. It was the first smile he had encountered on arriving back. He felt the beginnings of a throbbing headache come on him, something that had begun to happen frequently in London and which he had hoped he had left behind.
After a while, he willed himself to get up, unpacked and went into his old bedroom with the clutch of gifts he had brought for his teenage daughter - a stack of CDs, hip-hugging designer jeans, nail polish, her favorite perfume, and other knickknacks that a father brings for his child on the advice of a colleague’s similarly aged daughter- sixteen- and -can’t- wait- to- be- twenty. Six months ago, Maya had sent a long list of things he was to arrange for her summer visit to London- Tickets to Wimbledon and a cricket match at Lord’s, seats for Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, a Harrod’s credit card for shopping at the store and a trip to the Edinburgh Festival. It had struck him then how grownup his daughter had become.
Maya was asleep in the large double bed. A small night lamp glowed beside the dressing table. There were flowers on the table, a huge bunch of pale yellow roses blocking out any other view in the mirror. Rajiv looked at the figure in the bed- He searched for his daughter’s chiseled, heart-shaped face in this stranger’s moon-shaped one, the mother’s flawless complexion in the hairy visage, the sculpted nose lost in the unwieldy folds of the cheeks. It was not the face of the beautiful girl he had left behind but a furry, shapeless monster. ‘O My God’ he blurted, rushing out of the room in shocked pain.
But Maya had not been asleep and on hearing his remark she stirred and asked for a mirror. Mina had kept one out of her reach for the past four weeks. ‘Why do you need a mirror? Just look at me and you’ll see yourself . Only twenty years younger and a hundred light years prettier’ But now the threatening, near-hysterical pitch of Maya’s voice firghtened Mina into obeying her and she extracted a small circular lipstick mirror from her evening purse in which Maya could not see all of her face at one time. If she saw her eyes, she would not see her cheeks and if she saw her cheeks she would not see the thick fuzzy growth on her double chin. But Maya narrowed her puffed eyes and saw what her father had seen, in broken jigsaw pieces which she mosaiced together in her mind’s eye. Hot tears fell on even hotter cheeks.
Mina ventured quietly, ‘Maya, look, these are temporary side effects of the corticosteroids. They will all disappear as soon as we reduce the dosage.’
But Maya was inconsolable. She closed her eyes, ‘You lied to me. You told me I was just as before. And you, you actually let the world- my friends, Ba, see me like this? I’d rather die than be like this, don’t you understand? Get out. Get out, I said, please. Go Away.’
Outside it was Mina’s turn to weep. ‘Look what you have done ’, she cried between sobs that racked her body.
‘Why didn’t you tell me how bad it was? Why didn’t you call me earlier? I simply had no clue...’ He was still shaking in disbelief.
‘What could you have done anyway? Only this, but earlier? ’ she asked, burying her wet face in the pallu of her sari.
That night he slept badly, waking up intermittently between monster-ridden dreams. The only other time he had grappled with a major illness was when he was ten years old and his mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He was afraid then, afraid to go to her room and watch her body convulsed with pain. The bed sores on her back had suppurated, oozing out a yellow sticky liquid. ‘Go. She wants to see you, child, it’s not contagious’, his father would coax him, but he would run away to the nearby garden and return only on being assured that she had been drugged to sleep and he would not have to put his hand in hers, not touch the body which had sprouted tuberous growths all over. Seeing Maya, he felt the same fears revisit him.
The next morning when he went to Maya’s room, she smiled at him, her bulbous cheeks billowing out further until her eyes looked like slits carved into a Halloween pumpkin. She was applying the new nail polish on her chubby fingers which once were long and slender and used to be adorned by multiple rings on a single finger. He sat by her bed, neither of them mentioning the previous night’s outburst. She cajoled out stories of London from him, and he, tentative at first, recounted his drab daily existence, until she prodded him about the London she had read about, the theater, the gardens. He warmed slowly to the memories of the places which had provided him much consolation during the lonely days. He recounted the late evenings of early summer, when he sat out of doors, most often at Picadilly Circus, dreading the trudge back to the empty house, an incongruous middle-aged man amongst the teeming noisy groups of teenagers dressed in shiny, tight, black revealing clothes. He had wondered if his daughter would soon be like them, strutting coquettishly with a pink and purple haired boyfriend on her arm. He peppered his accounts with outrageously scandalous stories about Maya’s favorite music and film icons. He noticed with alarm that when she laughed, her breath was short and uneven and she held an arm against her stomach as if to contain the pain. Later in the evening, when they played cards, he saw how easily she tired, requesting him to shuffle the cards even when it was her turn to do so.
During the days that followed, he noticed that his wife was forever preoccupied in preparing diet meals, consulting doctors, dosing out medicines, reading journals and when all of this was done she spent the rest of the time closeted with Maya. It seemed that there was no convenient time when he could talk to her alone. When at last he found an opportunity, Mina replied, “Aren’t we always talking? - We talk when you have to visit the chemist’s for replenishing the medicines, when the doctor has to be dropped or picked up, when the milk has run out. What else is there to talk about in such circumstances?”
He found too that there were special visiting hours charted for him to spend time with his daughter- when she was fresh and dressed up, when she’d had her meals and was ready for some entertainment. He saw this as Mina’s gesture to spare him the distasteful sights- Mina, with her elephant’s memory, must remember details of his childhood, his mother’s illness, his fear of death and disease. It was a part of his life of which she knew so much precisely because she had not been a part of it- And because she had no other perspective of it but his own, herknowledge was simple and straightforward, shared in a time when they each wanted so much to believe in the other, when they did not yet think they knew what the other would speak even before they had opened their mouths. A time long before the baby’s nappies and the work files brought home had taken over their lives.
More than a month had passed since his return. Maya now spoke little, choosing to communicate in gestures. Sometimes when he entered the room, hesitating at the threshold, she would point to a corner of the room without raising her eyes- ‘Turn Off The Television’. That was his welcome cue. When she turned her head away, it was a polite dismissal- Leave Me Alone. He had replaced the television in his daughter’s life but had been systematically excluded from the act of parenting, from the illness and the doctors. He felt like a student denied admission to a graduate class for failing to attend the prerequisite undergraduate course. Neither Mina nor Maya talked to him about the illness. Mina went in and out of the room unannounced, with meals, medicines, books, even the bedpan, her child’s every need communicated to her through a language he could not hear. He saw too Mina looking leaner and younger each day, a grown-up image of what Maya had been when he had last seen her. He felt as if the umbilical cord had resurged and bonded his two women together in a space that held no room for him. Only this time the exchange was symbiotic, the daughter bartering her beauty, her youth for the sustenance she received.
The sequence of events that followed was lost on Rajiv when it actually happened. He took it as a sign of recovery when the specialist reduced the dosage of the steroids -He was not privy to the accompanying information - ‘Why make her suffer when the drugs were not helping her in any way?’ - and even as Maya’s condition worsened, the side effects of the drugs subsided till Maya was back to her former beautiful self, her large limpid eyes seeming even larger in the thin, sharply outlined face. He felt he had won her back from the monsters who still stalked his dreams each night. He failed or perhaps chose not to observe her body getting more frail each day, mistaking the glow in her eyes as a turn-around sign. One quiet summer afternoon when she had dispatched Rajiv to get some ice-cream she had no use for (how happy and useful he had felt, to be asked to run an errand for her!), Maya died quietly with only her mother by her side, just as she would have wanted it to be.
For many years afterwards, Rajiv would be haunted by questions about how and why Maya’s health sank so rapidly, when it had seemed she was getting better. Years later, in a moment of hateful anger Mina would tell him that it was not the disease that had taken for the worse but that the beautiful Maya had lost her will to live after seeing herself in the mirror. ‘You killed her, in a way.’
The condoling crowds were large and somber, shocked at the double tragedy of a young death of an only child. Even in the whispered private conversations between long lost acquaintances who meet only at weddings and funerals, there was no side talk about family gossip or the stock market.
Each day, the extended families -parents, siblings from both the sides (there were three from Mina’s and four from Rajiv’s) and their families, cousins, aunts and uncles converged to the bereaved house carrying tiffin boxes from their homes and stayed on until late at night. The men sat in one room, the women in another. Young mothers among them called up their returning school children in the afternoons to make sure they were safe and had eaten their meals, suddenly made aware of their fragility.
An outsider would have mistaken Mina for a grieving widow. The holes in her ears had closed up from months of disuse and her wrists and neck were bare. She sat ramrod straight from morning to night in one corner of the large sitting room, her arms joined in a silent namaste to the visitors. Occasionally one of her sisters would bring her tea which she drank without much fuss. She selected some of the food brought to her and ate it, putting the rest in an unused plate. More than anything else, she wished to be left alone. But the mourners would not let her be and it was only in the dead of night, in the room where Maya died which she refused to share with anyone, that she broke down and wept and wept amongst Maya’s polished chipped nails, the strands of fallen hair, her clothes, jewelry, her hair clips. They smelt faintly of perfume, of junior college, of the proposed London trip. There was nothing in them to convey the smell of death.
The event had transformed the
jealousy many of the not-as- beautiful women had towards Mina,
going back to the times when they were all young and fought for the affection
of the same grandparents, aunts and uncles, the same boyfriends and later
the same grooms, into a gentle compassion. They were almost forgiving of
the fact that even in her tragedy she looked incredibly poised and beautiful.
In a rare display of charity they acknowledged she did not look a day older
than thirty. Some observed that she looked like Maya’s sister, not her
mother. The tragedy had made her face leaner, her rounded jawline reclaiming
its original, sharply dimpled chin. Her eyes had set in deeper, accenting
her high cheek bones.
It was Mina’s mother who on the day before her departure drew Rajiv aside, away from the assembly of condoling men and talked to him. ‘Do you see the look in Mina’s eyes? They are not the eyes of a normal person. Do you know she has not stepped out of Maya’s room except to the doctors’ for the past four months? She wouldn’t let any of us help her with Maya. No nurse, no ayah either. Once when I came to meet her, I saw them playing scrabble and laughing together like one person- they seemed to have merged into a single entity. I was scared that day when I saw them like that.’ She told him how gaunt he had become and needed to take care of himself and Mina. He nodded mechanically, his eyes fixed on a stain which looked like a flying dragon on the large dhurrie laid out for the visitors. “Have a child”, she urged. “That will solve many problems. I will come and help.”
The multinational company transferred Rajiv back to Mumbai on compassionate grounds. One month after Maya’s death, of which very little was now mentioned, he was back at his job. His work provided him with a comforting escape into a world he knew all about, which was played by the rules he had mastered.
Every afternoon at siesta time, Mina locked herself up in Maya’s room. She turned on Maya’s favorite cassettes, pulled out Maya’s clothes and put them on- her T-shirts, her jeans, her skirts. She wore her perfume, her thick wooden bracelets, her high heels. She heard the thudding of the heavy clogs against the floor as she had heard them each day when Maya returned from college. She watched Maya in the mirror, smiling back at her. She pulled out the Mills and Boon paperbacks smeared with lipstick and eyeliner stains and smelt Maya in them. And then she put it all back before Rajiv returned from work.
Rajiv moved back to his, their bedroom. They kept to their sides of the bed, occasionally discussing something they had read or heard. Meena continued to wear the soft pastel mul-mul sarees in the night, even though there was now no reason to be always prepared for an emergency ride to the hospital. Rajiv attended a support group for bereaved parents on weekends. Once he asked Mina to join him. She refused. “Our griefs are different. I don’t want to manage my grief or even cope with it. I want to live it, I want to live her, each day of my life.’ He did not ask her again.
One moonless night more than a month after the last of the condoling relatives had departed, the cook prepared a meal accompanied with cold mango juice, the first alphanso mangoes to enter the home that season. Rajiv saw it as a message -that the official mourning was over, that life would go on and that the flavor of the magical fruit, like all things of nature, lay undiminished even in bereavement. After dinner when the servants had cleared the table, Rajiv helped Mina with some particularly puzzling clues in the Times crossword like he had more than seventeen years ago. She raised her eyebrows in appreciation and smiled. He felt the smile reach his insides- they had come full circle from where they had begun. They had made a home, a child. The home had prospered but the child was lost. They would start all over again.
That night, he laid his hand gently on Mina’s head, letting it flow over her face, tentatively feeling her cool soft skin under his warm hands. He felt her body tensing, her fingernails pressing hard into her curled palms. His hand moved over her chest, tunelling its way under the loose cotton blouse. He encountered breasts that were not the rounded breasts of his wife who had suckled a child but the firm, budding ones of a young girl-woman. He drew his hand to the bare waist that did not have the familiar love handles of a year ago but was taut and silky smooth like a teenager’s. He felt the resistance of the soft pleats of the saree tucked into the petticoat and pulled at its drawstring. The pleats came apart as his hand pushed further down. He could not feel the slight, residual belly, the tell-tale sign of her childbearing. He remembered the times when he would return after many months from a posting and how each time he entered her he was so pleasantly surprised at the tightness of her body as if the child had never happened, as if the gap of many months had made her whole once again. Like the way the holes of her pierced ears had closed on disuse.
In a single, swift movement he was on top of her. But he found to his horror that the body he held pinned under him was not his wife’s but that of his daughter’s. He could smell Maya, he could feel Maya’s unmistakable presence under him, her burning eyes on him, watching him, daring him to proceed further. Then he saw her turn her head - Leave Me Alone.
He rolled over to his side, his broken face hot with tears.
(Alpa Sheth did graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in Structural Engineering. After a stint of working in the Bay Area, she now lives in Mumbai where she is a partner in a Design Consultancy firm.)