GOWANUS Autumn 2001

By Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta

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The house looks just the same. Maybe a little older. But so are we all, and then houses donít change in other ways, in the ways that people change. It is still a cheerful medley of dusty orange and off-white,
with the bougainvillea climbing doggedly over the front porch, all the way into the terrace (there is still a beehive in that corner), the too-tall Ashoka trees leaning further out onto the road, the geraniums and the velvet-leaved begonias spreading slowly across the pathway. Children, playing tennis-ball cricket on the road, scatter briefly as the autorickshaw shudders to a halt. The driver gives me a dirty five- rupee note as change, but this is Bangalore, and someone else, at some Iyengarís bakery or in some Xerox booth, will surely accept it. 

Even the gate creaks its familiar welcome as I swing it open and shut. A startled brown squirrel darts behind the freshly watered tulsi brindavan. A string of dry, curling mango leaves adorns the doorway. Outside the threshold, someone - surely Lila - has drawn a hurried kolam in chalk: a many-pointed star. All the windows are open. Even as I press the doorbell, I can hear feet shuffling inside the house: someone must have seen me entering the garden. And why wouldnít they, because they must have been expecting me, after all.

It is a teenage boy, all arms and legs, who opens the door. Although his face lights up with a smile, I donít recognize him at first. Sunil? It is Sunil - oh, how youíve grown, I exclaim. Please come in, auntie, he whispers, looking suddenly confused. I leave my shoes in the hallway, where there is already a small heap of shoes and chappals in the corner. They have all come, then.

Manjula, come, child, says a warm voice from inside. Paatti. But as I enter, the room is full of strange faces, some curious, some taut. A thin elderly man, his forehead lined with vibhuti, gets up from the sofa to make way for me. Please donít, I begin, embarrassed. From inside, Paatti walks in with painful slowness. Silver-haired, she is bent further with age, leaning on a young girl - could it be Mina? But Paattiís arms are outstretched, and as I rush up to her, she pushes Mina away, reaching for me. As I touch her feet, I can already hear the whispers around me.

Sunil, tell Chitti to make some coffee for Manjula. Sit down, child, were you comfortable in the train?

I smile sadly in reply, my eyes shining. Itís too hard to talk.

Come inside, whispers Paatti, taking my elbow for support. Sunil, get Manjulaís bag. 

We walk slowly to her room overlooking the back garden, with its own little sit-out, the haven where she loved to retreat for her evening cup of tea. I donít want to ask, and Paatti is in no hurry to tell me. She looks searchingly at my face, traces my eyes and lips with her hands. 

I canít see too well now, Manjula, she sighs. I wish I could see your face better. Come into the light, girl.

She notices the clear forehead, the short hair, the bare neck. Her hands are rough and bony. No bindi, no sindoor, no mangalsutra: sheís mildly curious, but I donít feel like telling her about my life right now. Mina, standing in a dark corner, is staring at my churidar-kurta and my backpack. When she meets my gaze, she smiles shyly at me. When I last saw her she was a toddler and Sunil had just started school.

So you have come back to this house at last. 

Yes, Paatti, I whisper. Sparrows rustle in the hedge. A dry leaf falls, turning, from the silver oak. We sit in silence for a while as evening falls around us.

Where is he, I say finally. The old woman has forced the question out of me.

She turns slowly, gestures to Mina. Take her inside. I wonít come in there, she whispers to me. 

The room is just the same. The dark mahogany cupboard in the corner, the double bed next to the long windows, the green and yellow light filtering in through the branches of the rain tree outside. 
I feel almost ashamed that I am looking around at the room first - for signs of her, of course. She hasnít changed anything, not that I can see. Only he is changed, transformed into this thin shrunken frame, so pale that heís almost white, almost not there at all under the sheets.

Mina leaves us: leaves me, for he hasnít even noticed her coming or going. Paatti must have told her to leave me alone in there. When I move closer I see that his eyes are closed. He is breathing in short, sharp gasps. I donít want to wake him. There are tubes in his arm and nostrils. I look at the branches of the rain tree swinging slowly outside. Iím glad he has something to look at while he lies here. I sit on the hard-backed chair next to the bed, watching the speckled sunlight, wanting to see what he sees. Wanting, for once in my life, to see the world as he sees it - but not out of the bitterness that had kept me away all these years. And when Mina brings me coffee in that familiar steel tumbler, I sip it gratefully, seeking a taste of long ago.

A sunny morning long ago. I am lying there with my hair falling on his chest. We are looking out at the rain tree. I see the twisted branches rise and fall, the leaves dip in and out of the sunlight, the swish of a squirrelís tail as it disappears into the shady upper reaches of the tree. That squirrel lives there, I say, and I ask him what he is thinking of. Oh, I was just thinking, he says. About what, I persist, turning to look directly at his face. Just thinking, he smiles. For me, he was always holding on to himself, unwilling to reveal his secrets. For him, I was always willing to believe the worst of people and of things, but always ready to attribute nature with powers beyond the apparent. We were, as Paatti said, like parallel railway tracks. Running together, never meeting. 

Always thinking, silently, silently: that was his way. I screw my eyes shut, unwilling to think in the past tense, as if that will keep out the truth of his lying there motionless in front of me. 

A phone beeps from far away. Itís from inside my backpack. Itís Dilip. How are you, he says, his voice crackling across a thousand miles. I am silent. Bad? he asks in a low voice. Take care, he says, when I remain silent. Listen, Iím going to be in a meeting for an hour or so. Have you seen - him - yet? 

Yes, I whisper, stepping backwards into the corridor, afraid of waking Vinod. Iíve seen him - but heís still sleeping.

Look, I wish I could be there with you, but I think you should do this alone. You know that - I love you.

He says that so rarely. In the small things - not quarrelling with cabbies, not being irritable with a telephone salesgirl - I am much gentler than Dilip is. He would have returned the five-rupee note to the auto driver and asked for a coin instead. When people want to know if weíre married, he gets angry and I donít. I donít mind explaining to people that weíre living together and that weíre happy the way we are. But at moments like this, when I want to kick and scream at the horror of the universe, he calms me down. My still centre, I call him. My storm, he smiles back. When we are together, we talk and talk, even in our silences.

I wonder if there are others who want to visit. Perhaps I ought to get up, I decide. Someone is wheezing painfully in the living room. I donít want to go back there. I dart into the next room where Mina is seated at the computer. Sunil is watching television: Capriati and one of the Williams girls. French open, I ask. Yeah, he nods. It looks as if Capriatiís winning. The television is on mute, but the hefty American is punching the air.

Mina is playing scrabble on the net. Iíve just got six E's and a Y, she grimaces. What can you do with that! Her face is wan. Shall we go for a walk in the garden, I ask her, after youíre done with that? She smiles, nods, clicks ďQuitĒ and forfeits the game. I wonder briefly why Vinod shouldnít be able to do precisely that with the business of living: click quit, forfeit, and switch off painlessly, without tubes, without rasping painfully, without being surrounded by compassion and curiosity.

Making our way through the small crowd in the living room is difficult. The whispers start again, but they arenít what bother me. Itís the sight of so many people waiting. Mohan, Vinodís brother, is speaking on the phone. A maid is collecting empty coffee cups. Someone has spread out files, papers, bank passbooks on the dining table. The sorting out has begun.

We walk on the outer edge of the lawn. Mallappa, who has switched on the sprinkler, sees me and folds his hands silently. He must now be past seventy, I realise. We stand for a moment, looking at the lawn, saying nothing.

Letís go look at the mango trees, I tell Mina. We walk round to the back garden. There is a hush. Paattiís sit-out is empty. The mango trees are tall and sturdy: they, too, have grown. When I  planted them they were just saplings with soft reddish leaves. Sunil  helped me to dig the pits, and Mina  helped to pat the fresh earth onto the young plants. 

Vinod uncle hasnít spoken in days, says Mina bleakly. Heís always asleep. 

I am silent. Sometimes there arenít any more things to be said, I want to tell her, maybe he just has nothing to say. But she is a child, and children have to find out these things for themselves, by growing up.

She turns to look at me directly. Do you - still love him, she blurts out. Lila auntie was crying, she says, fiercely loyal. Lila auntie is still...

She stops, seeing the tears rolling down my cheeks. I shake my head. Not like that, I say, but as a friend, yes. It hurts to see a friend in so much pain.

We walk back to the house in silence. In the hallway, someone (from Vinodís office?) is pacing restlessly, speaking urgently into a cellphone. Sunil is signing for a couriered package. The maid is sweeping the threshold clean before twilight. The house is shutting down for the long vigil of the night.

I reenter the room, which is empty except for the small form under the blanket. There is a thin layer of sweat on his forehead, like morning dew. I use the edge of my cotton dupatta to hently wipe it off. I wonder if he will open his eyes, but he sleeps on. What are you thinking, I whisper, but he is silent.

Night has fallen outside. I draw the curtains. At the far end of the room, there is a table lamp. I switch it on, dimming the light to its faintest. 

Outside, in the living room, the voices ebb and fall. The first wife, I can hear Paatti saying to an elderly woman, perhaps a deaf neighbour. I donít know why he ever left her, and her voice trails off. 
I hear a footstep behind me. I turn: it is Lila, framed in the light-and-dark of this beloved room. Her face is expressionless. She has heard, too. I rise to meet her. She stumbles into my arms and I wheel her out, not wanting to wake him, not wanting her to break down in front of him. She sobs silently into the curve of my shoulder. I love him, she whispers brokenly, but the words are not as terrible as I feared they would be, they are not terrible at all, and I hold her awkwardly, rocking her as I might rock the child I never had. 

Lila, calls a voice, the doctor is here. She slips away suddenly and runs down the corridor. I return to sit at the edge of the chair, unsure whether to leave or to stay. 

(Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta lives and works in Mumbai, India.)