© Mona Yasir
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I lived in India when I was a child, in a two-storey yellow house where bougainvilleas, dark pink and thick, cascaded over one half of the boundary wall. It was a time when afternoons were quiet and long. The heat didn’t affect us then, we were young and had no thoughts for such things. In the middle of the afternoon, when everyone under five years and over twelve was asleep, my two younger sisters and I had the world to ourselves and it was vast. Our games of hide and seek were as quiet as the house. We were careful not to wake anyone. When we were tired of our tiny clay tea pot with its matching cups and saucers, we would make our way downstairs towards the netted door at the back of the house, leading into the garden. Through the brown dusty gauze, the white marbled floor of the verandah was so bright that it made us squint but that didn’t stop us going out. And out there, where young guava trees stretched up below green hanging papayas, I was a queen and my ladies in waiting, Sonu and Momo, followed me in everything I chose to do.
Outside, in the wilderness of a circular kingdom, surrounding the house and enclosed on all sides by a yellow garden wall, our discoveries were fascinating. We pulled up dry, golden blades of grass and poked little stick insects with them to see if they’d move, but they didn’t move much. So we teased the tiny brown ants, beaded like a marching ribbon across the bright garden wall, until they were in disarray and kept bumping heads trying to find their line again. That always made us laugh.
We picked the waxy leaves off the potted plants and watched the white sap slowly ooze out. None of us dared to touch it because, everyone knows, white sap is poisonous and could kill you instantly. And eventually, when the allure of sudden death had been exhausted, we would flick the inconsequential leaves away and move on to other pastimes.
Having satisfied our curiosity about miniature beasts and natural poisons, we would climb our neighbours’ wall and suck the imaginary sweet nectar from the base of the jasmine flowers until the tips of our tongues were sour. Then, having no more use for them, pushed the delicate blossoms softly into each other's long, black braids. We were careful not to spoil the silky petals as we adorned our royal heads with the precious, fragrant gems.
Afterwards, we sat in the shade under the coconut palms, waiting for the lazy sun to set, listening for the ice-cream man’s bell as he came cycling by. We always remembered to steal some money from Mama’s dresser before she went to sleep. There were always some silver coins waiting there. Just enough for three pistachio kulfi cones. And when the loud cawing crows began to circle above the mango trees, looking for a place to settle for the evening, we knew someone must be awake and moving about inside the house and would soon call us in.
* * *
On one of those long and languid evenings, before tea, Mama came down the stairs holding the baby. All three of us ran to her with our arms reaching up.
“Can I have him? Can I have him?”
I got the baby first because I was the biggest. We walked him into the living room, supporting his chubby arms on both sides as he struggled to stand on wobbly legs. He was our pet and we cooed and cuddled with him, rattling his toys in front of his nose and pulling funny faces, until he was tired of us and Mama came to fetch him. At the table, everyone gathered to sip steaming cups of tea and we helped ourselves to hot samosas and pakoras and there were some orange jalebies too, sweet and crisp, dripping with syrup. The three of us were so busy eating and the baby made so much noise that we didn’t even notice how quiet all the grown-ups were today.
Aunty, with her painted finger nails waving about, usually had something to say about her office, but today she nibbled her jalebies with her perfect teeth and kept her eyes steadily on her plate. Uncle, relaxed and jolly in his slippers, with his affectionate, slow way, would usually ask us how many plant pots we had broken and how many kulfies we had eaten, but today he drank his tea and read his paper and had no care for his plants or the precarious pots they were in. Grandma, thin and plain in her spotless white sari, who always tut, tut, tutted at our hair and our nails and our red faces from the sun, said nothing. She tried to make the baby hush as she rocked him with steady determination. But today, he was more determined than her. I heard Mama calling me from the kitchen and I ran in to help her. She handed me a plate of fried pakoras.
I asked, “Are the onions making you cry, Mama?” She turned and looked at me. The spoon in her hand hovered above the pan motionless. It was just an instant but I remember how she looked. Beads of sweat ran from her temples to her chin with droplets of tears making parallel lines down her cheeks. She wiped it all away with a damp corner of her sari and, without a word, turned back to the fires and the bubbling pans and kept on stirring, stirring.
That evening, Mama had her tea in the kitchen and didn’t come out until it was dark and everyone had gone up to watch some drama on television.
I didn’t even notice that Papa hadn’t come home.
* * *
Later, Mama put the baby in his cot and climbed into our big bed, as she did every night before going down. We all moved in towards her and nestled in her softness, safe and warm. All our thoughts were driven far away by her quiet singing. I’m sure she finished the songs she started but we were never conscious long enough to hear the end of any of them.
It was still dark outside when I was pulled back into the room by the baby’s crying. Mama will come now and get him, I thought. But the noise went on and on and no-one came.
“Stop it!” I moaned, forcing open an eye. The glow from the window made the baby look blue. He stopped his wailing long enough to look in my direction.
“Ma-ma!” he cried. It was a plea to go and fetch her, as if I didn’t already know what he wanted. I closed my eyes and willed the noise to stop but he cried until he couldn’t catch his breath and began to cough. I thought he might throw up if Mama didn’t come quickly. But Mama didn’t come.
Something was wrong.
I sat up in bed, both eyes blinking. The baby held out his arms to me, screaming and coughing. I dragged myself towards him on unsteady legs and heaved his weight out of the cot trying not to drop him. I felt like crying too but I made an attempt to rock him.
“Mama!” I called.
The baby moaned in a quieter tone. “Mama!” I called again, stamping my foot with annoyance, my tears making me furious. But no light came on beneath the closed door and no sound could be heard from my parents’ room.
I was faint with sleep and the baby wouldn’t stop hiccupping and he was getting heavier. So I whispered loudly through the door, “Mama! The baby wants you!”
We waited, the baby and me. A few seconds. A few seconds more. But Mama didn’t come.
A trembling anxiety crept into my legs until I could hardly stand. Something was wrong. How could she not hear me? Why didn’t she come? I shifted the baby’s weight to my thigh and reached for the door handle, desperate to find her, to see her, to know she was there. I clung tightly to the baby. I was afraid. But my fear was not as great as my need to see her. So I opened the door, something which I had never before done in the dark, and switched on the light.
My parents’ bed was empty. They were both gone.
* * *
Astonishingly, the girls slept through the whole thing. But the baby noise soon woke up Aunty and Grandma who stumbled into our room with eyes half shut.
“What’s the matter?”
“Why is he crying?”
“Don’t you know I have to go to the office in the morning?” said Aunty, more loudly than was needed, turning quite deliberately to my parents’ adjoining door and speaking right at it as if someone on the other side was listening. I didn’t have the nerve to tell her, that there was no-one there, I don’t really think I believed it myself.
But Aunty didn’t go to work that day. No-one did.
At breakfast, a somber kind of mood settled over the house. The girls kept asking me where Mama was and the baby clung to me and hiccupped and sighed between diminishing bouts of tears. Grandma took the baby, fed us and sent us off to play but none of us wandered very far from the grown-ups.
“Why are you all sitting here!” complained Aunty with a frown. “Go and play outside!”
“It’s too hot,” Uncle told her, calmly stirring his tea.
She slapped the table with her palm. “So what should we do then?” she said through tight, rigid lips.
Uncle looked over at us and I caught his eye because I was listening. “She’ll be back,” he assured Aunty in his deep, determined voice. But I felt that he said it more to me, so I ventured a question.
Every person in the room turned to look at me, even the baby. I swallowed. It was a long time before they turned away. Still, no-one said anything. Maybe they didn’t know. So I ventured another question.
Well, at that, Aunty threw down her tea cup so hard it broke the saucer. She scraped her chair back with such a loud screech that the baby jumped in Grandma’s arms. A second later, her night dress was billowing behind her as she stomp, stomp, stomped up the stairs to her room. We all knew the sound of a banging door was imminent and sure enough, BANG!
Grandma took the baby upstairs, shaking her head, and the girls followed her. Uncle sat at the table, rubbing his face with his hands. He was a great whale of a creature. So tall that I often wondered how he got through the doors without banging his head. Uncle was the one who usually took us to the park, to the circus, to the beach. He was the one who bought us pink candy floss and cola ice lollies, none of which we were allowed to have. And sometimes he paid Baba ji, the old laundry man, to let us all have a ride in his multi-coloured donkey cart. If Grandma had ever found out we had ridden atop dirty bundles of our neighbours’ clothes and petted that dilapidated donkey, she might have had us all vaccinated again. But we never told her. And every time we heard the familiar jingle jangle of the bells on the brightly painted laundry cart, rattling along as the donkey trotted by, we would catch Uncle’s eye winking at us, making us all jittery with the sweet secret thrill of conspiracy.
My Uncle was my hero. But today, he sat at the table, his newspaper lying ignored and useless on a chair. He looked tired. I went over to him and climbed into his lap. He smiled and pushed back the hair from my face. “What’s the matter, little heart?” he asked, kissing my hand.
I knew that if my Uncle had the answer he would not lie to me, so I asked him.
“Where’s Mama gone?”
He stared at my hand, stroking it softly with his thumb. “You don’t have to be scared, baby,” he said, “your Mama will be back soon and everything will be alright.” He looked at me, grinned and pinched my nose. “And your Papa too!” he added.
Well, that was good enough for me and I was soon off playing with my sisters making pretend dinner on our pretend stove, stirring my little clay pots and wiping the pretend sweat from my brow.
Mama came home that same day and eventually, I don’t remember when, Papa did too. I don’t remember how she came back. I just know I found her sitting in her room staring out of the window, not talking, not blinking, just sitting. I don’t think I even bothered to ask her where she had been, it didn’t matter anymore, it was enough that everything was as it should be again.
* * *
It was many years later, when I had long forgotten the events of that day, that I came to understand what had really transpired. I can see the pieces coming together now but at the time, I didn’t notice anything unusual. I was young. Mama was just always Mama. But there was one thing I did notice. After she came back that day, Mama didn’t leave our bed any more after her songs were finished. This was something we all got used to so quickly that there was no point in asking any questions. By the time we all got married and moved out, our parents had separate rooms and separate lives.
Shortly after my mother’s funeral, it was Aunty, in her late seventies, spitting venom and speaking through false teeth, who told me the truth. Of course, there had been clues and I had had my suspicions. We may have been children and the grown-ups may not have discussed the topic in front of us, but children have a way of knowing, of hearing things they are not supposed to. I sometimes overheard nasty, taboo words that hung in the air like a stale odour long after they had been uttered by familiar voices, such as divorce, pregnant and abortion. I knew better than to ask questions and Mama never said anything about it, but Aunty occasionally dropped a sarcastic comment in passing for which she received a very long unpleasant stare from Uncle. I was not allowed to listen in on such adult subjects, and I certainly wasn't supposed to comprehend such things. My family was very particular about keeping it all a secret, so I chose not to hear, chose not to believe that my father could be unfaithful.
“Your father,” said Aunty as if that’s not really what he was, “wanted a son.” We had just said goodbye to the last of the visitors who had come to offer prayers and condolences and I helped Aunty up the stairs to her bed. She looked more frail than I had ever seen her, she was finally beginning to show her age.
“But he had one,” I insisted, covering her with a blanket, still trying to shake away what I already knew.
“Yes, but not before he had already taken himself another wife. Huh!” she grunted. “He went and got himself a couple of twin daughters by her instead. Serves him right, cheating bas-,” she caught my look and stopped herself. “You see, darling, when your brother was born, your father heroically came clean and told your mother the truth. Your poor mother! Where was she to go with the four of you? It made me furious. I wanted to kill him. But your mother, God, she just wouldn’t break her silence. The other one wasn't as kind to him though. Divorced him and took her baggage with her, but not before she took up with some other man.” She took a deep breath, waving away the decades. “But why do you want to ponder over all that, darling. It was another time, another world. Everyone is gone now. Everyone. If your Uncle was alive…” she didn’t finish.
I found myself wishing that Uncle was still here too.
* * *
When my mother died, a muted kind of sorrow settled like dust over my memories. India was no longer my home, but it was the place where all the deepest parts of me still lived. I went back to stay at the house, where the jasmine now covered the garden wall and the net gauze on the back door was torn and showing its age. I slept in my mother’s empty bed one last time and was immersed by the scent of my childhood, warmly fragrant and consoling.
On that last morning of my stay, I woke up in my homeland feeling something new. I found, unexpectedly, that I was curious about the twin sisters I did not know, had never met. A profound sense of pity overwhelmed me for the man whose wife had given a quarter of herself to each of his children, leaving nothing for him. My father had chosen early on to drown himself in his career and his routine until he became an absentee parent, gradually and I believe unconsciously, delegating responsibility to his childless brother. I didn't feel the need though to assign blame anywhere, we hadn't missed out on anything. My father had provided for us, an expensive education as well as protection from a world that was not always kind to little girls. Besides, it was too late for anger. 'It is sometimes better,' I had once heard him tell Sonu, when she ran to him crying because Mama had refused to let her go to the beach with her friends, 'not to question a parent's motives.'
It was not my place to question, but I felt anguish at the thought of my mother's existence, her thirty years not lived, just spent, so that the four of us, innocent and oblivious, could remain so. I felt regret for always being selfishly needy of her and I felt gratitude with such intensity that it hurt my throat. My mother left me with more than just love. She left me with a burden of debt which I now feel inexplicably obliged to return to my own children, to sing to them, to hold them when they sleep, and to always make sure there are some coins on the dresser.