|Jan/Feb 2017 Fiction|
© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman
I was born on June 1, 1969, a month after Maman arrived in Pondicherry. Father chose a villa in the White Town district out of consideration for her, believing his Cambodian mistress would feel less displaced in that once-Francophone milieu with its cobblestoned streets and decaying colonial mansions. It was also far enough away from his wife and child in Cuffe Parade in Bombay, where he had his home and surgical practice.
Pondicherry was crowded even then, full of gangs of Tamil rowdies lounging about the boardwalk by the sea, streaks of cowdung ash on their foreheads and beedis jutting from their lips. As a child exploring the hot streets and gullies, the air filled with the scent of fish and incense, I learned to keep a safe distance as they swaggered about in the dust, their devotions to the goddess Kali no guarantee of fair treatment at their hands. When Maman appeared with her sun umbrella, the brutes taunted her, calling her Miss Chinee and untranslatable Tamil epithets. She could not walk alone for fear of rape and had to confine herself to the balcony, gazing out over the sea with a smoldering cigarette in her hand. On my father's rare visits, she would travel with him in our Ambassador sedan, catching glimpses of the ever-changing world through a curtain. She might as well have been in purdah. What a comedown for her, the gorgeous singer who loved the cosmopolitan culture of her Phnom Penh nightclubs, her ears attuned to the clink of glasses and the compliments of spirited men.
I stayed by her side, watching and helping out as needed. I was her companion, her little man, and also her burden. I was curious about everything, and at the age of six could take apart a pocket radio and reassemble it in less than five minutes. The dusty grandfather clock took an afternoon. A baby squirrel, much to my chagrin, could not be reconstituted. But I made do with lesser conquests. I remember asking Maman for glue so I could replace the eyes of a fat cockroach. Maman was clueless and pointed me to our cook Raman, who provided tapioca starch. Stuck back, the eyes looked like aviator glasses on a dark face.
It was natural for a child to be attracted to eyes, including the honest, licorice-like oculi of geckos and the fearless, teardrop-shaped ones of the green scarab beetle. But I soon graduated to other targets after witnessing superb dissections by Raman. We would stand at the kitchen table while he spread chicken and lamb parts out on the previous day's Indian Herald, the masala and stomach juices staining the faces of notables and the recently departed. Thanks to Raman, I boasted among my initial collection several fine chicken crowns and some early, origami-like experiments with entrails.
When my sister Uma arrived, she cried non-stop at first, spitting out her teething rings in disgust, but she soon broke out of the cage of infancy and grew into a capable playmate. She was rebellious, given to pouting and answering back, and also dreamy, flighty, intuitive, and fond of experimentation. She spurned dolls and cooking sets in favor of roller skates, silly putty, whoopee cushions, false teeth, and fake fingers. And a crossbow, a pogo stick, and darts. Middle for diddle, my little one! As she grew up, I started bartering toys with her, handing over my View-Master in exchange for the crossbow. I let her caress my squirrel skulls and rub her fingers gently on my moldy birdwings as she watched my perpetually mating lizards, fascinated by the male's blood-red bobbing throat. She begged for my flute, and I gifted it to her, and she was a happy piper as she played. Until Father arrived.
Father. We called him that, not Papa, Appa, or Dad. I never heard him argue with Maman. In those days it was Uma who got it in the neck and the behind. I am certain Father did not consider her his own. Indeed, he was tall and fair with thin lips, a strong and silent man with a calm and cunning mien, while Uma was dark with a thick, heavy mouth and a gentle roll of belly fat, a spontaneous and excitable being. Their differences were enough to set him off. The tiniest infraction on her part, the slightest surliness or disobedience, even the mellifluous sound of her flute, made him seethe and then explode, slapping her cheek and slamming her head against hard surfaces and carrying out methodical buttock lashings with a donkey stick. The latter he called putting, for he was a golfer with an under-ten handicap, and he carried out the whippings in a classic one o'clock swing posture.
The spankings went on, and after each one, Uma trembled, wept profusely and loudly, sustaining, we learned later, irreparable injuries to not only her body but her soul. Maman would try to snatch her away from Father, but he was strong enough to bar her attempted intrusions with his knee. Afterwards Maman would wrap Uma close and they would refuse to speak to Father for the rest of his stay, and even our dachshund Sherry kept her distance. The servants knew better than to intervene. I remember, after Uma received a particularly vicious thrashing, stepping out to find Raman and the sweeper Mary nonchalantly playing Parchisi in the dust.
As for me, I would mop Uma's tears with my pajama shirt as she huddled close. I promised her that Father would never lay his filthy hands on her, only to see her thrashed again.
Once, as she huddled like a frightened bird, my fingers grazed her belly, then touched her between her thighs. I quickly withdrew my hand, but then a surge of pleasure led me down that path again. She resisted, at first gently, then more forcefully. I pressed on, and then, after a brief struggle, she lay quietly compliant, her helpless chest upon mine. It lasted only a few minutes, that 12-year-old's first great victory.
The next day Father left, and Uma avoided me. She averted her eyes at the breakfast table, remaining silent, and when we were seated together in our clip-clopping school-bound tonga, she kept to her corner. That evening I summoned her to my room, but she refused. Then I asked for my View-Master back. She threw it on the bed. The silence continued, and Maman asked me, over dinner, what was up. I told her we had had a fight, and she ordered Uma to take her bong proh by the hand and make up. Uma refused, throwing down her plate of mutton korma and stomping off. I remember how Sherry leaped off Maman's lap to the floor, lapping at it until Raman arrived with his broom.
A day later I asked my bong srei to return the flute. She came to my room and wept as she handed it over. I held her hand, and then I dragged her under the mosquito net. When she turned away, I threatened to tell Father. I twisted her thumb until the little one bit my hand. I felt no pain from her milk teeth, and my fingers kept straying back to that enticing bud. I must say she resisted valiantly, but strength, dear reader, can move mountains.
It was while touching Uma during one of our play sessions under the mosquito net that I felt the first strong pulses of gonadotropin, and then the ecstasy of testosterone rising. Afterwards, alone in bed at night, I had my first cum, delicious and ticklish and tingling, with that inimitable adolescent scent—a thrill that must count among the great moments of the human male's sorry existence. I rubbed myself again, and soon my semen-drenched fingers collected a sample of that creamy secretion in a cough syrup cup. I rushed to the microscope, where I first saw stars in a distant constellation starting to jiggle and then, as the magnification increased, become bustling tadpoles darting about with their chromatin-darkened heads bearing the secrets of existence.
Uma! My sister, my tomboy goddess, my ever-missed darling! You withstood chicken pox, malaria, and dengue like the rest of us in disease-wracked Pondicherry, but then came your low-grade fever which eventually soared, leveling off at a rectal temperature of 103 degrees.
I remember Maman sponging Uma frantically from head to toe with ice-water while my sister sobbed relentlessly. She who so loved the endless pranks played on the Sisters at her Little Flowers Convent, causing her to be suspended once—bravo , my little princess!—remained confined to bed, groaning. And the hockey Uma was getting so good at, scurrying on fast little legs with her stick scooping the ball straight into the goal! Now she lay complaining of pain in her ribs, due most probably to an enlarged spleen.
Maman tried to cheer her up as best she could with floral arrangements she remembered from Phnom Penh. She chose enormous orange sunflowers and meat-colored cannonballs from our garden, embedding them in arrangements involving spiky, finger-piercing brass frogs, but the rare scarlet and yellow petals of chaddachi or grewia damine made Uma's skin look dull and pale. When I turned her over, there were fresh bruises on her bony back, even though Father had not visited us for months. She was exhausted, barely able to smile as I crawled next to her, her gums white as whalebone when she dutifully parted her lips.
Inhaling the sweet fragrance of the cannonballs with her brother there beside her, she must have dreamed of escape, of sprinting on soft turf with her fast stick, or given her flighty imagination, soaring deep into the patch of sun-blessed blue that lingered at her window. While all the while she sank steadily into the miasma of a miserable death.
Father was on the phone almost daily. He sent us to Aurobindo Hospital, where the doctors informed us her blood was teeming with white blood cells and blasts. They did a bone marrow aspiration and a spinal tap, which confirmed Uma had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She came home suspecting nothing, for Maman was in denial and believed lying to the patient was the best way to keep her spirits up. But once our little eight-year-old got her chemo, she knew. The methotrexate and asparaginase mix left her disoriented with a fatty liver and severe jaundice. Weeks shaded into months, and she wasn't getting any better. I comforted her as best as I could, until Father arrived.
Usually, Father would phone in advance, and the chauffeur Wilfred would prepare the Ambassador sedan and then drive Maman to fetch him from the airport in Madras. This time, the household had no warning and I didn't even hear the taxi. Maman was down in the kitchen when the front door banged. I should have gotten up then, but I was with my sister, hoping my touch would calm her down. And trying to steady myself as well, for I could not bear to see her suffer.
Father burst into the room and grabbed my shirt with one hand and sent me crashing to the floor, without even giving me a chance to put on my underpants. It was the first time he had treated me so roughly, but then I had never before been caught napping with Uma.
I got up hurriedly, rubbing a bruised elbow, and retrieved the rest of my clothing while he attended to Uma. I was about to slink off to my room when I heard the dreaded word.
Pierre! He gazed scathingly at my still unbuckled belt.
Father listened carefully on his stethoscope. Then the auscultation was extended to her stomach, which he palpated. He examined her skin, taking a careful look at her back. He checked her lymph nodes for swellings. He asked if it hurt here or there. He depressed her tongue so he could examine her oral cavity, where she had a large blister that was troubling her. He shone a light into her eyes. There was a rough edge to Father's movements. Uma, weak and clammy as she was, detected it and moaned a warning to me.
Maman rushed in then.
Bong proh, she said to him. You surprised us!
She had been hoping for a hug, a gesture of affection after calling him older brother as Khmer wives did, but none was forthcoming. And none ever would be. He merely shook his head. Maman looked like she was going to cry when Father pointed to the door.
Va t'en, he said to her. And she left, for Maman knew where her bread was buttered.
When he was done with his exam, Father left the bed and came towards me. My stridor had started by then. I steeled my muscles for the blow, preparing to duck in case it was aimed at my head. Instead, I felt a sharp pain between my legs that dropped me to the floor like a stone. I started to gasp as the adrenalin began pumping. Father looked tired, his thin lips twitching as he bent down and kept up the pressure, squeezing my left testicle with all the strength in his surgeon's fingers. I could feel the lobule crumbing as I started to go into shock.
As a child the driver Wilfred had often borne me on his shoulders up the ladder to our garage attic, sliding open the panel so I could heave myself up inside. The attic was a dumping ground for things that had outlived their usefulness, and amid the cobwebs and filth and rusting steel trunks, I had come across moldering Japanese dolls, empty tins of Quality Street toffees, and frayed issues of Punch and Strand. But these had all been cleared out in the great spring cleaning Maman had carried out the previous year, to the joy of the local kabadiwala ragpicker community. Now, as my eyes opened in that stuffy chamber, all I could see in the murky twilight was a gardener's pile of rakes, hosepipes, and watering cans.
From the pain I knew I had a head wound, but I could not inspect it as my hands were immobile. I was able to turn slightly, only to discover I was lying nude and spread-eagled on a pallet, my hands and ankles strapped to the rusty sidebars. I felt a dull throbbing down in my scrotum and could hear a chittering from the rafters. Motes of dust were dancing in the faint light, and I coughed, strafed by spasms of agony.
I heard footsteps on the ladder.
Ish my fault, Father said. I peered through half-closed eyes, watching his long body slither in. His voice was gentle and apologetic as he came closer.
She wanted a late-term at Shishowath Hospital. I could smell his drunken breath, hot and stinking. Ish my fault I shed no.
I had heard him slur like that only once before, after a particularly long session in the bedroom with Maman.
Doctor shuns Ashex of Ender, he said incoherently. Wash the prescribed med shin?
His face looked exhausted in that milky light, and he had the same frown he wore when explaining some trivial medical fact to a nurse or patient. I was now groaning on top of the high-pitched whine of my stridor. It must have irritated him further.
Cash tray shun, he whispered.
Kneeling on one of my thighs, he twisted my torso like a corkscrew. I gave out a sharp cry as my body arched up, like an insect about to be broiled. It was only then that I realized he had inserted a hot poker into my backside.
Father, I heard myself squeak out. Pleaaaase.
In shesh, he said, as if he couldn't quite fathom what it meant.
Father. Stop, Father! My asshole was now on fire, the attic filling with the stench of cauterized flesh.
Shuns a bloody deejun rat, his voice continued, coming from the floorboards. The poker was now prodding at my prostate. Ish my fault.
He stopped. The poker came out. For a full minute, he listened carefully to my whimpering. My heart was pounding, ready to leap out of my chest.
Shun, shtop wining and take der dam med shin. He turned me around and jabbed the poker hard against the silken sack that protected my gonads. There was a crackling, and the parchment yielded, and then I felt sparks. I was being grilled alive, the air escaping from my lips like the hiss of a lobster in a cauldron, as my already undone testicles were stabbed viciously by his flaming pitchfork. I begged for mercy. And wept.
Agony is tolerable for a few seconds, but several minutes of it are enough to change a young man forever. My asshole would heal slowly. I couldn't shit for long periods, and when the feces did emerge, the wounds tore. Then I had a bacterial infection, which spread to my prostate. The anal crypts were completely ruined, the glands and muscles turned into shredded lettuce. I waited for two years, experiencing intermittent constipation and incontinence, before undergoing reconstructive surgery, which took place during my second term at Cambridge. After the operation at Addenbrooke's hospital, the internals of my rear end were reconstituted and normal functioning restored.
I am sorry to say my testicles and perineum did not enjoy that happy ending. Father maimed me. He left me unmanned and infertile, my sperm factory in ruins. From that moment on I have had to live with extreme sensitivity in my dick.
I had fainted by the time he took the poker away from my privates, but Father was not done with his medicine. He burned each of my toenails off. By then the poker had cooled, so the injuries were less extensive. I was left with deformed toes, the nails growing periodically, only to turn black and die. Since the age of 15, I have preferred to hide my feet in calfskin boots.
I was rescued by Raman soon after Father departed for Bombay. The old cook didn't say anything, though he handled me tenderly for he could see I was in great pain. It was Maman who cared for me, sponging my nethers and feeding me bor bor and other soups she had prepared with her own hands. She was completely beside herself, for Uma was now beyond all hope. My sister had stopped recognizing anyone, though sometimes, when there was a great din in the street, she would frown, or move her little fingers. She slipped into a coma and died soon after. We never got to say goodbye properly.
I know, from deep meditations where I relive my past experience, that Father would have stopped at nothing. I have imagined him lingering on in that attic, slurring and grunting as he tears out my fast-beating heart.
I could never forgive him, though I remained dependent on his footing the bill for an expensive education. I had to converse with him periodically for Maman's sake, pretending everything was jake so we could remain in his good books, while all I harbored inside was the curling hiss of hate.
Hate. Rage. Revenge. These feelings can rise up like a great ocean wave, defying all understanding. I would have liked to rip Father apart from limb to limb, but I had neither the chance nor the guts to do it. Father lived his conceited, self-centered life to the full, surviving comfortably into a ripe old age in the midst of his family in Bombay.
Like the patients of yesteryear who bore surgery by clamping down on a stick, I have my own ways of dealing with pain. I have gnashed my teeth while scratching and scraping, gouging out flesh with my scalpel as if it was his. How often have I flayed a fetus, plucking the blue skein of its face apart with my fingers and stuffing myself up to the eyeballs with it! All the while hearing the infernal refrain, Ish my fault. Ish my fault.