Thursday, June 30, 2005

Ammi’s Shawl

I still have Ammi’s shawl. Big, black, warm. Beautiful.

I’ll always remember her as she used to be in the mornings, huddled up in her shawl , warming herself at the stove, sipping her first cup of tea, while the rest of the house still slept, in their voluminous blankets.

We would walk across Mall Road from the bus station, and the cold, clear air and the clean, blue lake would almost bring tears to my city-weary eyes. We’d cross the horse depot, and I’d smile at the smell of the stables. I felt so happy. Then the fork, and the cobbled path up to the back of the house. I’d be gasping for breath. The walk seemed shorter now, but I always remembered the first time I walked there with Anwar, and it had seemed like miles to my city-lazy body.

It took me almost 3 or 4 years and that many visits to mark for myself, the door of our house. The second door after the tailor’s, across the big, ugly plastic water tank. The wooden door hammered with tin was sure to be open by then. The servant boy, after lighting the wood stove for Ammi, must have hurried out, a few minutes ago, to relieve his bursting bowels.

The door would swing with a loud creak, as we walked in. My heart beat fast, anticipating Ammi’s pleasure on seeing us. Her hoarse voice would cry out, “Who is it?” And we would not answer. But tiptoe in quietly, wanting to see her surprise and her joy. Her face would light up.

She was so beautiful, her skin like ancient paper, slightly yellow and translucent, with age. Her eyes bright. Her long hair, black over her frail back. Later, when Anwar’s older brothers died in a car accident, it became white in one go.

Anwar would hug her, and make raucous noises, as he always did. She’d punch him, and complain, and get mock-angry, but she was happy. I’d beam silently in the background, and she would look over his shoulders at me, with love.

Her face registered disappointment against her will, at my plainness. If only I was beautiful, she would have been happier still. But I was nice anyway.

Each time I went to Nainital I loved her more. But each time I went with my heart more and more burdened with sorrow. Each time I was more and more torn apart between the urge to lighten my own heart of its despair, and the reluctance to lend her more pain. But sometimes I would burst out into tears, and she would know. She knew my pain more than I did, because her son had given her the same pain for many more years than he had me. The difference was that she continued to love him, and I grew to love him less and less. Chafing at the bond of marriage.

There came a time, when the lake, or the air, or the horses, or her love, could not tempt me anymore. I came away. With her shawl. I have it still. Her love, I don’t. He is her son after all. And I divorced him.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The bonesetter

The bonesetter is a part of my childhood memory. My father would wake up, in the middle of the night, screaming. An old cricket injury, that troubled him when he was tired, had had a hard day, or just when he was turning in his sleep. His left arm would slip out of its shoulder socket bone.

My mother, my little sister and me would sit in our beds, rubbing our eyes, trembling, while he cursed us in his pain. He’d pull on his trousers, drag on a shirt on one arm, pull the other sleeve over his shoulder, slip his feet into his slippers, muttering that he would die alone, while we woke up, from our beauty sleep. We children would whimper as our mother dragged us, and followed him.

Luckily, we did not know about death then, or we would have been terrified that he was dying.

Down the rickety wooden stairs, on the road, looking up and down in the dark night for a cab, afraid that the mongrel dogs sniffing at us, would suddenly decide to bite.

While we looked for a cab, my father would already be running ahead, along the grimy streets, luckily not as crowded as they were during the day.

The bonesetter’s shop was a street away, but it seemed a long, long way.

We’d bang on the wooden door, with the iron chain. After an eternity, while we pondered his absence, the door would open, and a man would come out. Then my mother and we girls, started breathing again. The bonesetter was at home.

We were not frightened then. He’d do something to our father, twist his arm, and heave it, and magically, the bone would be back in its socket. My father would groan. Sometimes, the bonesetter asked us to hold our father, while he pushed and pulled. Sometimes, we would faint while doing that. My father and the bonesetter would laugh.

Then he’d put a warm ointment over my father’s shoulder and back. It smelled lovely. Then he’d bandage the arm and shoulder most beautifully. My father would sport that bandage for a week, not having a bath, washing himself around it.

After the bandage came off, we would all forget the bonesetter, until my father woke up screaming again, one night.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Clueless

Sometimes, Indu woke up with the wrong clues. She knew then, the day would be a puzzle she could not solve. All she could do was wait for it to fall apart. She would continue to lie in bed, in despair, until her bowels forced her to move. Perhaps, tea, cereal and the morning papers would redeem the day, yet. But she knew that was not to be. She switched on the television, and numbed herself to the day’s screeching calls. Outside her window, the world was too far below to pull her. Inside, she did not switch off the answering machine that she switched on at night. Sarla was there to deal with the doorbell.

Sarla was used to Indu’s uselessness. Quietly, she entered the house, at a given time. Quietly, she went about her defined, determined tasks for the day. Her days did not change form and color like Indu’s did. For as long, as she could remember, her days had been relentless, gray sea. One day, when she had got married, a pink glow had hung over the day, and she had looked up with hope to look at it. But the glow had vanished in a few hours, when her husband’s alcoholic breath fell on her face. Then, when her sons were born, the days had turned red, but those too had soon congealed into black, as her sons went their own way. Many, many days had made Sarla as tiny and insignificant as a speck of sand. Every day, the sea brought in dirt to her, and every day, it washed her clean.

In the afternoon, Indu switched off the television, and moved from the settee in the living room, back to her bedroom. She drew the curtains, shut the door, switched on the fan and lay down in bed. Her skin was burning, itching; her legs shook in jerky spasms. Her body was heavy with unused energy. She switched on the air-conditioner, and covered herself with her soft blanket, hoping to calm herself down. But the thoughts within her, banged around like so many frightened bats. She lay inert.

When the bedroom door opened, Sarla quietly put the water to boil for the evening tea. She put a cup of tea before Indu, who was sitting on her armchair, looking around with stupefied eyes. “Where is Nayana?” she asked. It was the first sentence she had uttered in the day, and her voice grated on her own ears. Sarla said quietly, “She’s gone to Anu’s house to do her homework. She said she’d be back late.”

Indu wished now that Sarla would go home. Sarla had already cooked the evening meal for Indu and Nayana, and put it in casseroles. She was washing the cookers, now. Then, she would fold the washed clothes, and keep them away. Then, she would mop the kitchen, before leaving. Indu knew that Sarla would take another hour to finish here. After that, she would walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, walk to her home after the bus-ride, wash the lunch utensils at home, cook the evening meal for her husband and sons, wash the utensils again, watch her husband drink and hope that he would not get into a fight that day, wait for her sons to switch off the television, so that she could drop off to sleep. It would be midnight by the time she slept, and she would wake up again at 5 the next morning, to fill water, wash her family’s clothes, clean the house, prepare the lunch for her husband and son, and then leave for the bus stop to come to Indu’s house.

Indu felt tired just thinking of Sarla’s day. Her guilt at her own idleness erupted into irritation as she watched Sarla, bent over the kitchen floor. “Can’t you go home now? I want to be left alone.” Sarla did not answer, but finished mopping up quietly.

Indu switched on the television again, waiting for the day to end.