|Jul/Aug 2011 Fiction|
Photo by Chris Epting
I stare in confusion at Dipti and Choti standing outside my front door until Dipti says, "Hi, Papa," throttling me into the centrifuge of our relationship. I straighten my back like a superintendent on duty and smile to let it be known that I'm happy to see them.
"How've you been?" Dipti continues in a tired tone, wafting in with the neighbor's curry that, for the first time, curls my nose. She crosses the threshold with her leather suitcases, her clothes buttered by fabric softener, and a corpulence that visits, as she does, every second year from America. Immediately, my living room—a luxury in Mumbai—becomes smaller.
"Hi Nanu!" says Choti, the little one. She flings her arms around my waist with such force that I stumble backward, almost slipping on my dead wife's rug. In my old house with the grainy floors, the rug was a solid thing, but this shiny new house with its slick flooring has made it dangerous, an accident waiting to happen. I catch my balance at the same moment that my eyes fall on my granddaughter's face, and I'm falling again. Choti looks so much like Sheila—her features that of a child, but still the same triangular face, the black-bean eyes held close together, hair sprouting from the rim of the face as if a scalp is not big enough.
"Ashirwad, Choti," I say, trying to smile, patting Choti's hair, inching away at the same time, so my intimacies remain prudent and unassertive, causing harm to no one. "Your hands go round my waist now, eh?"
"Dad," Dipti says, abandoning the sweet softness of Papa, a word that numbs the grate of her nasal twang. She scans the apartment, and I wait for her verdict. "This new place is swanky. Look at the cream pillars, the false ceiling, and—wow—French windows." She walks to the balcony, "And we've exchanged our view of the Gupta's toilet for a pool."
I don't mention that paying for that pool shaves off a third of my pension money.
Choti and I follow Dipti as she strolls around the house, picking up things, casually dropping them.
"Looks like our family is finally moving up, huh, Dad?" she says, and then adds softly, "Maa would have loved this."
She would have not.
The sound of her stilettos ricocheting off the walls stops as she turns to me and says, "What do you do with three bedrooms?"
"Enjoy it," I lie, not displaying my distaste. Before this I've only lived in my father's home, which belonged to his grandfather, our legacy from Mumbai's treasured space. In the body of a hundred-year-old, the flat was—as Dipti never failed to mention—dowdy, paint leaking from it like crying mud, rusting iron-framed windows. Yet, I saw myself in it as though it was a mirror; my identity was bound to its leaky lime mortar walls and the roaches that scurried each morning as the house came to life.
I continue to live there though it no longer exists, its body destroyed by that builder with the toothy smile who offered me two choices over a cup of sweet ginger tea: a bigger, swankier flat in lieu of vacating, like the other residents, so he could build a thirty-three storied high-rise, or the streets. I've desperately searched for my old flat's soul here, in this new flat whose ceiling I can touch, and all I find is my hollow reflection.
"Yuck, Mommy, look! A gecko," Choti yelps, pointing to the freshly painted living room wall. I turn around sternly, with no idea what a gecko is, and fix my eyes on a light pink lizard. The pest control I'd done a week earlier has obviously had no impact. Yet the icy sheet around my heart lifts, because this gecko is the only sign of life I've seen in the 14 months I've been here.
"Choti, this is our friend Chameli. She has come to say hello," I say, my voice mock-childish, like one adopts when talking to a seven-year-old. Choti looks at me with her eyebrows raised, and I recoil in surprise. When has she learned to think for herself?
I clear my throat to say I'll take their suitcases to the guest room. Nothing comes out. I can't find my voice.
"Are you all right, Dad?" Dipti asks, crossing her perfectly thin eyebrows.
"Fit as a fiddle-er on the roof," I say, an old joke between her and me. No, judging by the way her lips pinch together, it's an old joke between Sheila and her, for their love of the same book. I wish Sheila was here, so I didn't have to steal her jokes or search for what to say to her daughter and granddaughter. How to welcome them into our new house, how to deal with Chameli.
I lift their wheeled suitcases and leave them next to the new bed inside the second bedroom, which will finally be used. When I come back, Dipti is sitting at the edge of our old striped sofa with Choti on her lap. A bottle filled with pink tablets is lying open on the cushion next to them.
Dipti strokes Choti's hair and asks, "Are you eating well? You've lost a lot of weight since I last saw you. Diabetes in control?"
"Yes," I answer, distracted by the maid—what's-her-name—who is carrying two glasses of coke toward us, unlike the three I'd asked her to bring.
"Namaste, Bibiji, Baby," she says and I'm grateful for her follow-through of at least one instruction. I've hired her for the exact period that Dipti is here: three weeks, and though I can barely afford a maid I don't want Dipti with her crisp American life to wade through the hard deprivations of her childhood again.
"How is Udit, Beta? He did not come?" I ask Dipti, as she dips her lips into the glass without sipping. Her lips leave mauve lipstick marks on the glass.
She looks down at the carpet before leveling her eyes at me. "No, Dad. He's busy, always busy, with work. He doesn't get more than two weeks off, and you know how things are in New York."
I don't know, having never been invited to what Dipti calls her "slice of lovely madness." But for someone who has never given me explanations, this is a long one, especially since I don't mind that my son-in-law is not here. I've met Udit on the two occasions he's visited India: once during his wedding with Dipti, when he flew down for a week, and then the time he visited with Dipti and three-year-old Choti when Sheila was still alive. He seemed uncomfortable in India, a country—he stressed repeatedly—he'd not grown up in, had no attachment to, and planned to visit just that once when he met Dipti at a client party. I didn't see him after that. He didn't come to Sheila's funeral, using Choti as an excuse to stay put, and the next year Dipti came alone with Choti.
That time even my daughter stayed in a hotel, saying she didn't want to live where her mother had died. That time I still lived in the old house.
"It's moving," Choti gasps and clutches a ladybug stuffed toy that also looks like a pillow. The gecko, with its unblinking, soulless red eyes, dashes behind the white tube light, and Choti squeals. To distract her I give her a package I've hidden under the sofa, since she doesn't seem interested in searching for her present as she's always done.
"Look what I got you, Choti," I say and wait. To buy this gift I went to an exclusive toy store (that looked like it was passing India on the way to someplace important), where a salesgirl with acne furrowing the landscape of her face helped me find the "perfect heart-o-melter" for a seven-year-old. I wanted to buy Dipti something, too, but my money can't meet the price tag of her expectations. Either way, my life's been spent on giving Dipti its best chunk, driven by Dipti's lack of compunction, her sense of entitlement over my things, and my habit of it. Whatever was left of my salary as an income-tax officer didn't allow me to splurge on Sheila, who only once complained that she, too, would have enjoyed receiving a gold chain for her birthday.
I seek Choti's thrilled expressions to imagine what they'd have looked like on Sheila.
Choti tugs open the box I didn't know how to gift-wrap and pulls out a plastic kitchen set. Her expression, devoid of emotion, tells me she doesn't like it.
"It's lovely," Dipti says, picking up a pink teacup in her hand. "Say, 'Thank you, Nanu.'"
"Thank you, Nanu," Choti parrots.
I speak, quickly, to fill the void left by our disappointments before it becomes a guilty silence: "Your mother loved these when she was your age, Choti." Choti picks up a yellow ladle and stirs an imaginary pot with it, cooing. My granddaughter has learned to feel apologetic about her feelings.
"I thought I'd get a doll, but..."
"She has too many dolls, Dad. Really, this is good. Something I'd never have thought to get her."
"I also got you something your Nani used to love eating," I say to the girl, still hoping. I unwrap a green leaf bundle to reveal a white steamed milk pudding. "This is Kharwas. I bought it from a street vendor who makes the best Kharwas in Mumbai. It is sweet and soft, better than your American cupcakes."
Choti looks at her mother as if for help. The Bisleri water bottle peeking out from Dipti's purse reminds me that they drink mineral water and eat home-cooked food when in India. Laughable as this is—for Dipti ate street food and drank tap water for 26 years before leaving for America—I have no choice but to respect their decision.
I fold back the leaf when Dipti says—with a sigh that contains compromise, something my daughter has never done with me—"Go on, try it, honey. It is delicious."
Choti takes a tentative bite of the pudding, and a small hint of satisfaction skirts her lips before she gorges it down. A part of Sheila has lived on.
Dipti looks at me closely, watching my reaction.
"Hmm," I grunt, not knowing what more to say. Sheila gave us the semblance of father-daughter, the glue without which the true nature of our relationship threatens to reveal itself. I need to postpone this.
"You must be tired," I start, and become quiet, crumbling under my attempt to play host. But Dipti starts lobbing bombs of questions into our field of emptiness. She asks me which room I sleep in, if I still eat chicken tikka every Friday or visit Shiv Taya on the last Thursday of every month. We've never had a relationship partial to conversation, so I conclude, sadly, that perhaps Dipti is trying to reconstruct her lost relationship with her mother, even though relationships are not buildings that can replace annihilation.
Yet, my daughter has changed in a way that I'm unable to place. Her garrulousness allows me the liberty to study her. She has a face like a globe, round and large, glowing with the sheen of knowing everything. Her big hungry eyes rimmed with black kohl lighten her fair face, and her thin lips move against the strain of round cheeks. Although people say she looks like me, I've never been able to find myself in her, as she also probably prefers. I strain to focus on her words, but my pampered silence stands beside me, nudging me to give it attention. I point out that Choti has fallen asleep on the couch, not a good idea, and as soon as they enter the guest room, I turn off all the lights in the house.
The next morning, after butter-toast and tea, Dipti tells me that she's meeting an old friend from her hotel management college and will be back after dinner. I hear this with surprise since Dipti had made no effort to contact friends during her last visits, citing lack of time as a problem even as she wilted away at home, fanning herself during the daily electric outages. She leaves Choti with me, for which, after my initial hesitation, I'm glad, since this is the first time that I'm alone with my granddaughter.
Choti tells me that her mother has let her bring all her toys and games from America. She is at that wonderful age where she can amuse and be amused, adding color to the Uno, Snakes & Ladder, and Monopoly that we play together. I let myself loose in her imaginary world. The maid loiters around, giggles at Choti's broken Hindi, goads Choti with winning tips, takes her to the bathroom, asks her to call her Kaki—older sister. I've never had a maid, so I don't know whether I'm being lax or strict with her, but each of us is laughing like we've never laughed before, and it isn't fair to fracture such rare perfection. I think of telling the maid—whose name it's too late to ask but whom I also call Kaki—to make dinner, but she's teaching Choti some Hindi words. So I cook khichdi for the three of us, and though Choti titters that it looks like puke, she eats it anyway. Her day's energy spent, Choti leans against me as we watch a cartoon about a yellow sponge that wears pants, which she says is her favorite.
Dipti comes back an hour later with the city's dirt and pollution settled over her skin. She flings her purse on the dining table as she did growing up, and Choti runs up to her as if she hasn't seen Dipti in weeks, as if our time together was a mirage, imitating Sheila.
Dipti sits down and pulls Choti up to her lap. Choti buries her face in Dipti's throat, while Dipti rocks her gently, cooing some language that only these two understand. Again, my daughter becomes someone I can't be related to, someone who doesn't belong in my world. I ask her if she's eaten, and she says, "Too much," like it's an inside joke. Then she takes Choti to their room and doesn't come back out. I put Choti's things aside and retire to my room.
In the darkness I realize that Dipti didn't mention facing trouble finding her way around Mumbai, a city whose daily transformations leave me confused. From an early age there's been no hesitation in Dipti, only a forthright boldness, an unnerving confidence. Every time I sent her out into the world—to the elite school with her elite friends she never invited home, to the grocery store from where she returned with free milk sachets—she came back with the same body but a new soul, morphed by forces she didn't reveal to me, as if I was undeserving of it. By the time she became a teenager, she couldn't curtail her raw distaste of my choices, so I tried—as parent's do—to inculcate in her my sense of self, forged in the rows of unkempt brown files at the income-tax office in Churchgate and my home with its dilapidating walls. But Dipti shrugged me aside. Ultimately it was Sheila, armed with the unending empathy and unyielding patience of a mother, who drew out Dipti's guileless egotism and made herself privy to Dipti's world, which we otherwise could not have imagined.
How will I do this without Sheila?
The first week passes with Dipti gone the entire day, coming back after Choti has fallen asleep. I don't protest, adapting my old ways to her new ones. When Dipti first came back from America, her expression was one of disappointment, as if the roots of her origin were inadequate, having grown their shoots somewhere else. Her presence became a favor she bestowed on me, when there was no need for her—with her rich glowing skin, her body thickening with the sight and sound of that foreign land, her hairdryer whose voltage never matched—to come back.
That Sunday Udit calls. He skips over the mandatory question about my health and asks to speak to Choti, even though Dipti is home. Choti walks toward the phone as though she's crossing a busy road, her hands curled tightly around her ladybug pillow. She mumbles into the receiver, her back to me, and after a minute when she turns around the ladybug's button-eye is pulled out.
Before I can react, she squeals, "Look, Nanu. Look! The gecko is back." She runs to me and buries her head in my chest.
I take her face in my hands, holding it like a reward, "There is nothing to be afraid of, Choti. Do you know that Chameli brings good luck to our family? No? Then let me tell you a story. The day that Nani's doctor told her that she had two month's to remain on earth, I saw Chameli for the very first time, right here, next to the bulb. I ran to kill her, so angry was I about everything, but Nani stopped me, saying the creature would bring us luck. Chameli came back every day after that and do you know what happened? Your Nani was on earth for six more months. Six very happy months."
Choti looks at the lizard like a freezing man at a fire. "Maybe we can ask Chameli to bring Nani down from the stars," she says.
"Each of us only gets one wish from Chameli. Your Nani's and my wish came true. Now you make yours," I say wistfully.
"Can I ask for Mommy to be happy?" Choti asks. She looks up at me wide-eyed, and I reel in shock. Never has she looked so much like Sheila. She reminds me of the first months of our marriage when Sheila liked to sit with me, drawing Himalayan trees she'd never seen, shelling peas, knitting a blue sweater I used that once we went on vacation to Kulu. It was the only time in our marriage when Sheila belonged to me.
I lift the girl onto my lap and hug her.
"Your mother is happy. She has you, no? If I had you, I would be happy, too," I say.
"You will not leave me like her and Daddy?"
I pat her head, "They haven't left you, Choti. Now make your wish before Chameli goes away."
"Do you mind if I make a secret wish?" Choti asks, and when she shuts her eyes, I pray for all her wishes to come true.
I'm in my white kurta ready to leave when Choti asks where I'm going. I tell her that I'm going to the post office, though I don't specify the reason: that I need to see if my money order has arrived there by mistake. My pension is late, and since I've invested my savings to impress my daughter—paint, pest control, maid, Choti's gift, a bed and cupboard, Bisleri and Oreo's—my money is running out. With 800 rupees and 12 days before Dipti leaves, I haven't refilled my insulin pencil, the only expense that affects me and not anyone else. There are 300 units left in the pencil, and these will be gone in ten days. I need money.
"You're leaving me home alone?" Choti says, disapprovingly.
"Kaki is there to look after you, Choti," I say in my placating voice.
"I don't think Mommy would approve," she says evenly, not the slightest hint in her tone to give away what she's doing.
I take her along to the post office, 15 minutes away. Choti stays close to me on the broken pavement, and I don't leave her hand as she looks everywhere but where she's walking, her eyes wide-eyed at the familiar sights of my life: the Kodak shop where Sheila and me took our first photo together; the Gujarati snacks shop whose owner Kaku Bhai says that three generations of my family, save for me, bought enough khandavi to pay for his daughter's wedding; the Xerox shop whose proprietor invites me in for a cup of tea.
Choti shuts her free hand over her ears. "It is so noisy."
The sound of tires screeching, hawkers shouting, music blaring, firecrackers, horns, which my ears have long stopped hearing, stand in front of me shamefaced.
"This is the sound of life, Choti. A way for mankind to tell you that it's alive," I say.
She removes her hand from her ear and says, "Can I have an ice-cream on the way back, please? It's very hot."
I look at the road I'm making her walk on, a multi-tasking one that serves as a domicile for cars and cows and chickens and carts and dogs and garbage and beggars, so different from the single-minded roads that she's used to. I agree with a guilty yes.
We reach the yellow-and-brown post office and enter the crusted building where a drum of activity is producing a low, steady growl. I instruct Choti to stand by the glue and envelope stand, as I don't want her to hear my conversation, and then I wait for my turn in the long line leading to the teller. When there's just a glass window between the teller and me, I stick my head toward the opening and ask when I can expect my money order.
The teller shrugs, "I don't know." Don't care.
"Please check. I am running out of money and my daughter is visiting from America."
"Then why don't you ask your daughter why your money order is delayed? I am sure she can buy this post office with her dollars." He smiles.
When I turn around, Choti is standing behind me. I don't know how much she has heard or understood of our exchange in Hindi. Neither of us says a word, but on the way back she doesn't pursue her demand for ice-cream.
I tell Choti not to tell her mother that I took her to the post office. "She would not like you walking on this dirty road."
Choti looks at me, her expression weary, giving me a peek into what she'll look like when I'm no longer around. Her tone is grave enough to invite faith as she says, "Don't worry, Nanu. I'm used to keeping secrets."
That night when Dipti comes home, I ask her when her return ticket is booked for. Maybe I can come and drop you, I add.
"I don't remember the exact date. I'll have another look."
She sits down next to me on the couch and turns on the TV.
"Why did I ever want to leave this place? I could live here forever," she says, nostalgia slapped on her face. She turns to me, "But that would drive you mad, huh?"
She's looking at me seriously, and I tell her it would drive Udit mad, not me. She changes the topic, telling me that my niece Narah, whom she called, has invited us to her house for lunch that Sunday. I'm surprised, not at the invitation but at Dipti's willingness to meet relatives. She hasn't seen Sheila or my extended family since her wedding because she finds them intrusive. She once called Narah a village bumpkin to her face.
Finally I understand what I've been unable to pinpoint about my daughter's changed appearance; there's a vulnerability to her, a hesitancy she's not possessed before and seems awkward carrying, like a child who's given up their personal mythology of themselves.
I agree to go.
The day when I use the last of my insulin shots, Dipti tells me that they'll be leaving in two days.
"Unless you want Choti to stay? Her school semester doesn't start for another month," she says.
"I would love her to," I reply, remembering a game called curling I had recently watched on TV. The game captured my experience of being a parent, of Sheila and me rushing to clear the ice in front of Dipti—the stone—so she could surge ahead. It was exhausting. Now with Sheila gone, I single-handedly have to clear the ice for two stones. My daughter and granddaughter. It's too damn much.
The book of my life has been written, and I'm in its final chapter. There's no place for a new sub-plot.
Dipti is studying my reaction, so I say, "Take Choti with you. It's better not to take a mother away from her daughter."
Dipti turns away, a tear edging her eyes. My line has reminded her of her mother, I realize foolishly. I retreat to my room and don't come out till my guilt has subsided.
The day before they are to leave, Dipti is out again, so I take Choti to Mumbai's famous Chowpatty Beach. I have 61 rupees in my pocket, enough money to get there by bus, pay for two or three rides, and come back home. I don't mind spending the last of my money, as the new teller at the post office has assured me that my money order will arrive by tomorrow. We reach our destination as the sun is setting, and Choti runs around the sandy beach for a good 30 minutes, stopping only once to watch a monkey show. Having missed my insulin dose yesterday for the very first time, I'm uncertain on my feet and tremendously thirsty, too. But I take heart that such moments with my granddaughter will not come back.
When she's ready for more, I seat her on a ten-foot-high Ferris wheel and swing her on a merry-go-around, enjoying the flow and ebb of her laughter. At her request, I strap her onto a horse for a ride. But she shrieks atop the horse, asks to be taken down, and then, without warning, jumps off the horse into my arms. She's heavy, and my arms are too weak to hold her for even a second. I drop her.
Immobile with shock, I watch as she picks herself up from the ground.
I wait for her to cry, to scream, to be angry with me, but she dusts herself and coolly says, "You are very hot, Nanu. I think you may have a fever."
My gratitude to her beckons me into action. I bend down and examine her thoroughly. Does it hurt anywhere, I ask, and she shakes her head no. Her right knee is scratched, but otherwise she's unharmed.
"Let's go home, Choti. I want to get you into clean clothes before your mother sees you like this."
I have enough money to take the bus home and start walking toward the bus stop when Choti says she's hungry. I look at her bleeding knee as I make my decision: we'll take a taxi back, and I'll borrow money from the building watchman to pay the fare. I ask Choti if she wants to try the famous Chowpatty Beach Falooda, Kulfi, or Bhelpuri.
But she's seen me hesitate and mumbles, "Kharwas—" which she now knows costs next to nothing.
While she is eating, Dipti calls on my mobile.
"Dad," she says, her voice curt. "I have some news. Bad news."
I brace myself. The last time we started a conversation like this was when I'd called to tell her that Sheila had died in her sleep. Something changed between us after that, grief not joining us as it normally did loved ones. For Dipti, who had not seen her mother's deterioration, the shock was devastating, the death abrupt. She howled while I remained stoic, having watched my wife fade away, her death a blessed release for her. When I told her that I'd miss her mother, too, she replied, "But you're not even crying." Dipti doesn't know that Sheila saw me in the most loving role of my life, as a husband, and without that identity I've never be a whole person again.
Dipti continues, "Udit and I are getting divorced. Things have been bad—"
"It's not like you didn't guess by now, Dad. You don't sound surprised." I'm not. The signs were everywhere, but I didn't want them to crystallize into this. Her voice drops and comes back "—not approve, but our minds are made up. I don't want to end up like Maa, compromising, sacrificing, and never happy."
I startle on hearing this. When was Sheila unhappy? What did she say to Dipti during those long chats I never heard? Why didn't she show me, tell me?
"When was Sheila unhappy?" I ask Dipti.
But she's not listening. "Since we didn't get married in the States, Udit has left me nothing. Zilch. I came to India to see if I could start a life here. Dad, you there?"
"You are going to live in India? With me?" I ask. The entire deck of my emotional cards lay out in front of me at once.
"Well, I'm not going to be a burden or anything. I met a lot of people in Mumbai who say they can help me get a job. Obviously it will take time because I haven't worked since Choti was born, so we have to be patient."
"The good news is that my lawyer called from New York this morning. She's found a loophole that could get me alimony and child support. So I'm going back. In fact I'm on my way to the airport. I'll leave Choti with you for some time, like a week, a month or so."
"What? How can you leave Choti with me, Beta? How will we manage?" I realize I'm shouting.
"There's nothing to worry about, Dad. Kaki is there to help. I'll try and find my own place when I'm back. Meanwhile, please take care of Choti."
"I can't. It is not possible."
"Why not, Dad? I left you two alone so you could get to know each other better, and you seem to like her enough. Just continue doing what you're doing, and you'll both be fine. If I'm not back by month end, a friend can place Choti in her cousin's school."
"Dipti, Beta—" it has to be said "—I don't have money."
She laughs now, her chortle full of misplaced, cheerful surprise. "No money? You're sitting in an apartment with more rooms than you can use, a property worth crores, a pool, gym. Of course you have money." Her voice becomes edgy, "Maa would have never thought of money at a time like this."
I find it difficult to breathe. My chest is tight. My heart is beating too fast. I sit down on a stone bench, unable to speak. Dipti is silent for a minute before she asks, "Dad? Are you okay, Dad? You're breathing very heavily."
I can't reply.
"Dad, I have to go. I'm getting a call from my lawyer."
"What did Sheila tell you? Why was she unhappy?"
"Dad, this is not the time to talk about it. I'll call after I've checked in to talk to Choti. Don't tell her anything yet."
She hangs up.
I remain in my seat.
Choti looks at me. "Was it Mommy?"
I don't reply.
"Are you okay, Nanu? You look sick."
I stand up.
"Don't be angry, Nanu. It's not Mommy's fault. It's my fault. I made a wish. I told Chameli to make me live with you. This is all my fault."
Choti is crying. I look at my granddaughter and find that I have nothing to comfort her with. I start walking.
Choti runs after me.
"Are we going home now?" she asks.
"Yes, we will walk home," I say.
"Walk?" she says, stopping. "Did you say walk? Isn't home really far away?"
"Yes, home is far away. And till then, we walk."