Wednesday, January 06, 2010

first rains - 4 - End

‘Say’, Abhay’s closed fist yanks out of his pocket, pulling it inside out, and opens to offer me the diamond he had discovered when we were digging in the back garden; Ba had dismissed it as a pendant from the chandelier but we knew better. ‘Say it’, he brings the open palm under my nose, and rolls the crystal in it, tempting me with its flirtatious winks. ‘Say that you hate Preeti too.’ I look up anguished at his mud-crusted face, the tear stains like dried rivulets, the welt under his eye where she had punched him before rubbing his face in the flower-bed turning a strange purple. ‘I can’t’, I weakly mewl again.

I came to our small world two years after her, and like a leg trailing the other a step ahead, I chased after her, pulling at her heels, mimicking her, demanding and claiming the same as she did. Sometimes she would stop exasperated and push me away; I would pick myself up and hurry after her again.

I have no memories of discovering her. I must have discovered her the same way I discovered my toes as an extension of my essence. We fought, we laughed – but love? Hate? These verbs which defined the world of our relationships held no meaning between us.

The only time before Lucknow when the chasm between our selves revealed itself was when she bitterly told me that I had killed ma; that she had started dying since I came. I crawled beneath the bed and lay their hiding in the dark, my heart throbbing, too scared to breath, to comprehend. Ba pulled me out and holding me with one hand, she dragged Preeti with the other and sat facing us. ‘What did you say?’ she shouted at Preeti, ‘What did you say to him?!’ Preeti remained silent, her hand limp in her grip. Ba let go off my hand, and slapped her. A tear coursed through her cheek but she did not cry, till I fell on her crying, and then both of us cried on Ba’s shoulders, and laughed between our tears to hear the strangulated way Ba would weep in.

Preeti digs her heels between papa and Badi Ma and stares defiantly at the lens in the platform, half-clutched hands dangling at her sides ready to pull out the six-shooters, only we could see the fear knit in her frown. I lie slumped across Ba’s shoulder, my face unseen but it’s not hard to imagine me from behind– eyes half-closed, mouth half-open and drooling, hands clutching at her back.

I could not follow her in the world that began from that photograph. The legs cleaved.

I sulked on the parapet as I heard her scraping and shuffling behind me. A day ago, I had put my head into a room and she had lain on the bed staring in my direction. I had hit my head on the awning in the hurry. Clambering below, she greeted me with an indifference which made me decide that she had not spotted me. Evidently, I was wrong.

After a few minutes, I turned my head and she stood at the edge of the parapet of the dining room. She turned away and I reluctantly got up and followed her. She sat on the awning of the sky-window opening to the drawing room, her feet dangling a few inches above the tar, her face solemn. I dragged my feet and stood in front of her.

‘Take out your hand and swear.’

‘Swear what?’

‘That you will not tell anyone about this. Not even Ba. And especially Abhay.’

I swore.

‘On papa? On Ba?’

I nodded.

‘Now you swear that you won’t tell too!’, I shot back bristling.

‘Of course, I won’t’, she shrugged and hopped from her seat to her legs. ‘Anyway, I don’t swear’, she walked away dusting the back of her frock.

The fierceness with which Preeti took on this new world surprised everyone – even me. By the time I recovered enough to join in the games, she was the ring-leader. I never saw her beat anyone else other than Abhay in their skirmishes but I saw how they flinched when she would freeze and turn her eyes on them. In a wedding, a boy rushed ahead of a mob following us and asked us something and then howled at our accents; the next time he drew in again, she whirled and stamped a raised leg flat on his stomach; after the crying and wailing had been done away with, after the chap had been thrashed a second time by the mother he had pulled along, he was eagerly plucking the choicest marigolds from the strings and fetching them for Preeti, and, as a further appeasement, offering them to me which I eagerly grabbed by the bunchful, while Preeti disdainfully picked a single orange bloom and plucked at its petals indifferently.

I knew it was an act; that she was as frightened as I was. That she fought for us – two waifs stranded on a shrinking ground between the sea, papa absent, Ba snatched away. Once, as they were being pulled away from a fight, Abhay landed a kick at her ribs; we all heard the crunch of the toecap against the bone, but she remained impassive, her hands dangling loosely at her side, watching him being dragged in a weeping bundle by chachi. After affecting a boredom for a minute, she walked away and disappeared behind the portico. I followed her to the corner where she lay crumpled behind the pipe. I squatted beside her silently and touched the rib below her pressed hand and watched her crying in silent convulsions.

Her struggle to master the language of this world was just as vehement. True it was a truncated world now – so everyone told us and so the old servants grumbled. The house which had so overwhelmed me was but a shadow of what it had been once. During the time of my grandfather, the front would be filled to the driveway with the daily supplicants and dropper-bys. They would crowd under the portico fans in the summer and sprawl in the lawn under the winter sun, and drink from the hand pump on the broken pedestal at the edge of the lawn which had gone dry. Even the chairs and rugs, now piled in mouldy corners, laid out in the shades then fell short and the lower sort (Jwala – the half-mad geezer who screamed and argued with an invisible companion between his day-long routine of dusting and re-dusting the sideboards, pausing to keenly listen to the other side of the argument – pursed his lips in grim satisfaction) had to squat in the lawns to share their tales of woes.

Ramdei would nod dejectedly towards the huge cauldrons and tell us how an army of cooks once cut the vegetables under her supervision to prepare the feast to fill the leaf plates for fifty men everyday in the leaping flames of a giant choolha – and look at them now! – she would point at them with the end of her smouldering bidi –Gathering dust in a dark corner, turning their black arses on the present!

The house was so full with relatives that the courtyards became dorms with rows of khaats smothered in mosquito nets stretching across their length and more than once, Bua tittered, an aunt had been woken up shrieking by a wrong uncle fumbling in the darkness.

And of course, there was the monochromatic evidence of those abundant times spilling out of their black scrapbooks: Nehru lunching in the lawn under a shamiana sitting in the middle of a row of white-clothed tables, a famous movie star sitting in the drawing room with a young Bua bursting with glee on his lap, grandfather bending his head to hear the soft words of the diminutive prime minister; ministers, bureaucrats, cinestars; and always, a sea of people behind them, faceless, with folded palms in supplication.

Whatever little world remained, preeti set out to conquer it with a doggedness I had never suspected in her; I had always worn her out. Within no time, she was dancing and singing to the folk songs in the ladies sangeets to delighted applause while I shyly hid behind the pallus. The aunts fawned and beamed at her interest in the feminine rituals of the household. The oiling of hair on Sunday mornings when they would congregate on the steps of the courtyard after their baths, smelling of sandal and jasmine, and spread their lovely black hair, dripping and staining the granite a dark grey: I can see her sitting behind chachi, opening the cusp of her hand slowly as she runs it along the length of her hair and spilling slowly the oil cupped in it. The clinking of the bangles as her tiny hands rummages between theirs through the white muslin the choorhiwallah would spread and squat a distance away; ‘Do!’; ‘Chhah’; announcing the price by the dozen of the bangles lifted to his eyes. The ceremony of preparing of the henna, the preparation of the rangolis, the washing of the brass gods by Badi Ma, … – she absorbed it all, stopping only at the rituals of cooking and washing because that would undermine her feminist war for the right of birth with Abhay.

‘But who was she?’, Preeti asks about a stranger who had just sat outside the kitchen chatting and laughing raucously with the aunt and munching on the dried red chillis laid out on a newspaper.

‘Arre, she is the wife of Sarju uncle, the son of Poorab chacha!’

‘Who is Poorab chacha?’

‘A family friend.’

‘Whose friend?’

Sarla chachi looks up from the pan and frowns at the wall for a moment. Then irritatedly she picks up the plateful of diced onions at her sides and tips it into the pan in a fury of sizzling smoke, ‘Arre, must be someone’s! Aise hi thode aa jaate hongein!’

I would hop in from school to find her sitting between the scene of dicing vegetables, fermenting pickles and grounding spices, her satchel tossed on the takhat and a rag doll or a book in her hand which she pretended to be occupied with. But, I knew, she was listening intently to the murmurs of gossip which passed from the servants to the ears of the aunts and Badi Ma. I tried joining her, despite her frown, sprawled over a sketchbook, badi Ma idly stroking my hair, and trying to listen and understand, but all I gathered were opaque whisperings of adult intrigues. It took me some time to accept that she could actually find her steps through some rooms of the labyrinth of people that encircled us, that she could connect the names and faces to us and even place them to some degree of proximity with each other. When in doubt, she would cross-examine hard, poke savagely at the fabric of tales, find holes and retreat to think and compare evidence; and then come with dark startling deductions.

‘There must have been another grandmother who died. Grandfather must have married twice. Chacha is not Badi ma’s real son.’

She spoke in our argot of Russian, Kazakh, English and many other tongues. We usually spoke it when we were alone. It made others uneasy and we used it less and less in public though Preeti would sometime throw a most irrelevant remark in my direction when we were with the other kids, I suspect, to add to her aura of impenetrability. And when Ba would chide us to speak in Hindi in that very khichdi tongue, the eyes of the aunts would narrow with suspicion.

‘How can you say that?’, I asked her in a whisper strangulated with intrigue.

‘How else can papa have three grandmothers?!’, she snapped, ‘Why does she dote on papa so much? And why else does everyone call her Badi Ma, chacha calls her Badi Ma, but papa calls her just ma?’

She turns away from me and sits hunched and frowning on the lower step, deep in thought. I sit beside her, waiting in suspense for more, waiting, and after some time, getting up and ambling away towards the bent guava tree. I turn to look back at her but she still frowns at nothing. I climb up the tree and sidle up a branch. Locking my feet, I fall and swing upside down and close my eyes and think about it.

Papa had changed after coming back. Not only his absences were more prolonged, coming back only in the breaks between the semesters, but his withdrawal from us when he was there. Preeti and I never spoke about it and we never complained to him. Instead, we clung to his neck when he would tiptoe into our bedrooms to kiss our foreheads, and once when he read softly from a book we smiled like the ritual from the apartment had never been interrupted. On the two occasions I remember when he secreted us in the backseat of the car and drove to the milk booth on the bank of the river, we smiled brightly over our bottles of flavoured milk and never asked him why we could no longer sleep with him, why we could no longer eat together, why did he look through her and never speak, why we could not still have our apartment in the twice-as-big smaller wing of the house. Because we sensed that more than us, it was he who was struggling to balance that secret world of deserts, excavations and our little apartment within with the world whose patriarchal sceptre had now been thrust in his hand. He was the weakest of us. In a way, Preeti was protecting me, and both of us papa; trusting that she could look after herself and, secretly, over all of us.

We blamed Badi Ma. For keeping him locked in his study when he was home and completing his sequestration by opening the room adjacent to the study, installing a new single bed there, and sun chairs on the verandah which he never used, since, she told everyone, he needed his privacy for his work. The lawn separating that wing from ours became a no man’s land where no idle chatter could corral and no child, even us, could play. Servants could walk across only with assigned tasks. Ba no longer kept his books; Badi ma assigned Ram Lal, grandfather’s lanky clerk with a mop of white hair and a brown half-sweater on his spindly chest even in the hottest summers, to that task. In the morning Mahadev would walk across to do the dusting and mopping. It seemed that the only time papa stepped out now was when he sat in the secluded room adjoining the puja to confer with Badi Ma on the affairs of the household and the many trusts she still ran, and to receive a screened batch of visitors. He even ate alone in his study, the food brought in by the Brahmin cook Hargovind and the plates brought back by Ram Lal; away from the dining room where Preeti and Abhay would squabble over a chair, where the servants would line against the wall holding the pots and ladles waiting to serve the circle of male relatives and VIP visitors only after she had hobbled out of the puja, plopped on the gaddi bolstered with many cushions with a groan and nodded towards them to go ahead. The wiring of the bell in his study to summon help from the main wing was fixed again but papa never used it. These rules, and roles, were never spelt out but understood in the same manner everything Badi Ma wanted was understood – unspoken.

It seemed ridiculous that the aunts had to bring in the chapattis to the dining table instead of one of the servants brining out the daal and the sabjis (Badi Ma would growl if a roti was served without enough ghee rubbed on it). Ridiculous like how Hargovind had to go and summon the ever unemployed chacha to fetch water from the brass pot for Badi ma every time she felt thirsty when he could have fetched it himself. But everything in that household, I realised later, had a meaning in its order; it was her way of keeping things and people in place. At least the appearances when things were no more what they had once been. There were hours for everything: when the household slept, when it woke, when it ate and when a certain amount of commotion could be tolerated. There were rooms where only certain people could walk into, bathrooms restricted to certain members of the household and visitors, cupboards cutlery and pots only particular servants could touch. The men ate before the women, the women before the servants, and some servants ate from steel plates, others from pattals, some of them seated on wooden pedestals, others squatting. Each servant had his task cut out, from the washing of plates to the laying of the beds to the serving of tea and lunch to the visitors; there were rules even to whether the visitor would be offered a chair and served in a steel or a leaf plate and whether requests for more tea would be entertained.

I ask chachi why Ba doesn’t eat at the dining table with us. She gapes and beckons Ramdei to come closer; they bend over me and she holds me by the arm. ‘Did she eat at the dining table there?’, the thrill barely suppressed in their whispers. I stand mute, frightened that I have betrayed something again. Suddenly chachi shoots upright on her feet and Ramdei rushes away to the rice she had been separating from the husk. I look behind to find Badi Ma staring tight-lipped at a blushing chachi pretending to look busy with an empty pot in her hand. She had this quality of leaving her hobbling groans and almost floating around the house to catch people with their guards down.

By isolating papa, she was trying to protect a weak king from the whispers of the mob. This was her love for her son, this was her way of protecting him from himself.

I startle and open my eyes. Preeti stands upside down staring through me. ‘She is not Badi Ma! The Badi Ma died and then she came! She must be Chhoti ma!’, she pauses, ‘Vimla bua called grandfather’s mother Badi Ma. She must have taken her name after she died, after both of them died.’

Her eyes suddenly focus on me, ‘Papa is younger to chacha. In fact, chacha is our tau!’

My legs slip and I fall on my hands and stomach. ‘Don’t tell this to Abhay’, she tells me.

I believe not all of it was kindness; it was also to suppress the secret of the advantage Abhay gained if chacha became elder to papa. But I knew better. Swinging back and forth, I had suddenly been overwhelmed by the epiphany that in this clockwork hierarchy of privileges and duties, I sat at the top. I had rushed that day inside the puja where papa and Badi ma sat poring over the ledgers and hid behind his chair, while the rest of the cousins and even Preeti balked at the doorsteps. Badi Ma shooed them away and then turned to smile indulgently at me and passed the key to her forbidden almirah from her karghani to the bending bracket of Ram Lal and told him to fetch a Threptin for me. Suddenly I understood. She was the stewardess holding on to the vestiges of the crumbling empire that papa had inherited; and that I was going to inherit it after him.

The crack had fallen off in plastery rubble and been resealed with fresh concrete. But I was now tall enough to climb the mesh and reach the ledge under the parapet, and directly swing to the low wall from there. I peeped over the roof of the dining room and she was there, squatting under the awning of the window to Badi Ma’s room.

I had long given up on that game. The only time I looked over now was in the hours of siesta, with a sketchbook spread below to watch them sleep. Badi Ma lying on her side, the drape of her sari across her cheek and spilling across the bed like a stray thick brushstroke. Below her, sitting upright but with his head resting against the edge of her bed and one hand still on the feet he had been pressing, Lallan, the village lad who taught me to climb the mango tree. Chacha on his stomach with his hands at four and eight o’clock, looking like a bird which had suddenly forgotten to fly and dropped with a splat. Chachi buried under a blanket even in the warm afternoon. Abhay on his stomach too, squashed between them, his butt half-risen in air. I would watch them: painter with the brush poised in mid-air pausing to stare at his freeze models. I would fill my insides like a diver with the air of their lines and forms, and then duck my head out under the awning and furiously attack the sketchbook before the vision, its memory, dissipated like bubbles breaking and vanishing at the surface, like a dream melting away.

Mostly I remained on the side of the outer rooms, walking across the low wall, to the other house, where Arjun, the boy servant and my companion, would be flying a kite while the family took its own siesta. I would take precaution to be never seen as Badi Ma had lost a son, and papa a brother, when he fell off the edge of a stepped farm into an abyss while chasing a kite. (Sukhi dada, the caustic octogenarian, the only relative I knew Badi Ma feared, who referred to us as pille, dog’s litter, shouts over his lunch, ‘Is there any onion? Or did somebody die eating that too?!’) Preeti knew; but then I knew many things too. So we both ignored.

I did not climb the roof now only to fly kite. And she to eavesdrop. It had become a secret world we shared without sharing, where we could be alone in our parts to catch our breath in its silence, to be unseen, to imagine. We wanted to tell her too but we were afraid that she would forbid us to climb up anymore.

I watched her cock her ears close to the window and tilt her head a little towards it.

I thought that no one knew our secret. But one day as I sat over the parapet, papa stepped inside the back garden and walked around the courtyard to the orchard and paused at the mango tree in its centre. I would have ducked away from his view but I was too surprised to see him there, I had never imagined him there. ‘I planted this tree’, he suddenly said without turning. And then he turned and looked directly at me and smiled, ‘I must have been your age then.’

I told Preeti that we had to take more care of not being seen; she shrugged and said that she only listened and never peeped, which was true; and anyway, she hardly even did that anymore, she waved her Blyton in my face. True again. And which was why her statue-like stillness, the unblinking glint in her eyes, piqued me and I approached her. She bade me to be quiet with a finger on her lips and remained intensely locked on to whatever she was eavesdropping on. I put an ear to another window and heard the deep sibilant echo of whisperings. I tried to follow the context but it was too vague for me. A word rang again and again, voh, followed by three matras – he she them. I lifted my head and gesticulated towards Preeti –What? She held a finger to her lips again. I turned and started climbing over the shade to peer inside; it had been so long since I had done that and the spiders had weaved thick cobwebs that I had to headbutt through. I saw Mahadev’s huddled form bending over Badi Ma’s ear, lying on her back, her bun open and thin grey hair scattered on the pillow like a half-crown above her head, staring straight ahead and looking sad but brave. And then Preeti pulled me out. ‘What?!’, I gesticulated angrily at her again and walked away angrily, sure that she was pretending.

That night, as Ba rose after tucking us in, Preeti held her hand and whispered, ‘Mahadev was telling her something about him again.’


I rush into her room but she’s not there and it’s his arms I fall into. His teeth flash, his eyes burn on his face and I flail in silent panic. He laughs, bellow, and lets me go and I rush out dizzily. I claw hard at the pillow, and I hear Preeti draw her breath.

‘You and him.’

Ba paused and then ran a hand over her forehead, ‘Piya, you shouldn’t eavesdrop dear.’ I heard her kiss her forehead, the shuffling of the sheet she drew and tucked under her chin, move to my bed and pause at my sleeping form, and then she walked out of the room, switching off the light after her.

I lay paralyzed and cold with terror in the darkness. Wrapped in a terror I had never known possible and yet realised I had known once: deeply etched in the birth of my consciousness, the terror of mutely and helplessly losing an essence so deep so deep.

That terror became a face.

The face of Badi Ma. Lying on her bed and mutely listening. Unbudging hardness glinting under her pudgy sorrow. The face I had seen hanging on the wall of his room that night.

That night, too frightened to even cry, I lay frozen like that day I crouched under her bed, suffused with only a primal terror and incomprehension no words could unfathom. The next morning, I was found wrapped in a drenched bundle of my sweat. I fell sick again. But my sickness could not keep her from taking her away from me.

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