Her father had fallen and needed stitches on his forehead, Leela’s sister, Meera said over the phone from London. She was filling her in about her recent visit to Mumbai. He is okay, she added, still Leela had immediately taken the next available flight out of Chicago.
Her mother warmed her hands around the teacup. Outside, the sky was grey. Leela was wide awake, even though she had only arrived a little after midnight.
“You like cats, don’t you?” Meera had adopted a stray cat during her stay. Her mother continued, “Meera found this half-starved cat on the streets. She was feeding it. She said, ‘Ma, Leela will take care of it after I leave.’”
“Meera expects me to look after this cat?” Leela asked. “Typical!”
That morning Leela accompanied her father on his walk. They emerged from the colony and walked along an uneven road edged with piles of gravel from the multi-towered apartment complexes that were coming up. Despite the early hour, Leela observed, there were trucks laden with cement braking noisily, auto-rickshaws idling, cars passing and buses rumbling by. Maids walked briskly, talking into their cell phones. To Leela, each visit to Mumbai seemed like a shoe falling. How many more trips, before one of her parents died? She wondered. How much time before there was no longer any need to visit?
Returning to the colony, a burly man in a white pajama kurta came towards them. Shankar Kaka had been a former pilot. “Inbound or outbound?” he asked when he saw Leela.
“Inbound,” Leela grinned. “I just arrived early this morning.”
“What! No jet lag?”
“Not yet. I don’t get jet lag when I am here.”
“You are in good health.” He flourished his arms up and down, and then brought them together in a namaste. He asked, “Do you know why we do namaskar?” Bringing his hands together again, he said, “Let me give you the secret of a long life.”
Her father interrupted him. Vasanthi, the fishwife, was doing her rounds, calling out the names of the different varieties of fish in the basket on her assistant’s head. Her voice rang like a buzzer. “Not now, I have to buy fish,” he said.
Arriving home, Leela observed Vasanthi’s assistant lifting the basket from his head as he prepared to sit on his haunches in the front courtyard. Cats had appeared miraculously, writhing with desire.
Her father was telling Vasanthi, “Our daughter’s here, give us the best fish.” Protesting that she only sold the best fish, Vasanthi brought her cleaver down with a thud on the wooden slab, filleting kingfish, gutting roe, and beheading shrimp.
There were heavy nose studs on each of Vasanthi’s nostrils and Leela could see the paving of the front yard through the holes in Vasanthi’s ear lobes.
“There’s our cat,” Leela’s mother pointed to a cat with a satiny, sable-colored coat, elegant as a mannequin, with eyes like Audrey Hepburn. She must have been a Burmese or at least the poor cousin of one, a princess fallen on hard times. A Siamese tom, another stray, timidly snuck behind her. These cats would be prized in the States. Here they are strays, Leela thought.
The cook was telling Leela’s mother about the commotion at the sea front, the previous night. When it was dark, young lovers used the rocks against the sea wall as a trysting place. A young Parsi couple had been sitting on the rocks; they were to be married in a few weeks. The man’s fiancée had dropped her wallet into the dark water. He tried to retrieve it, but must have slipped and hit his head against a rock because he never came up. All night long, the coastguard vessels plied the waters looking for his body, their lights dim as matchsticks. It was almost new moon. The cook described the anguish of the young man’s parents, an elderly Parsi couple: the blind father tapping with his cane the ground of the causeway, the mother breaking into sobs as she pleaded with the coastguards, “Please find my son.” There had been only fifty rupees in the fiancée’s wallet. Such is life, the cook said.
There was fish for lunch, both fried and in a coconut curry. Burmese Princess was making a ruckus on the window sill. She sprang from the terrace, clattering down the corrugated iron roof of the shed and had now landed on the sill. After everyone had eaten, her mother carefully gathered all the leftover fish heads, fish skins and bones and put them in a Formica dish. She unlatched the dining room door leading to a slightly damp passage where dripping clothes hung on a clothesline during the rainy season. Shuffling slowly, she entered the tiny backyard crowded with a coconut palm and a nutmeg tree that gave no fruit, and lowered the dish on the uneven ground. Supporting herself against the outer wall, she slowly raised herself up and turned back.
The tomcat lingered behind Burmese Princess (BP). The pair reminded Leela of Vasanthi and her assistant. BP sent the tomcat packing, then finished eating, making a mess around the plate, before scampering away.
“Go clean the mess,” her father said. Leela refused. She refused to touch the Formica dish or the mess in the backyard.
Finally, it was her mother who cleaned up. By this time it was raining hard. Her mother rinsed the Formica dish in the rainwater that cascaded from the overhang.
Every day her mother performed this new task of collecting all the fish skins and bones and putting them in BP’s dish and calling out to her.
“Yaww! Come!” Her voice echoed in the backyard.
“Don’t you have a name for her?” Leela asked.
“No, we just call her cat. We don’t want to get too attached.”
Two weeks passed since Leela’s arrival. Burmese Princess had not shown up for some time. At first, her parents were glad; then they wondered what had happened to her. Leela and her father were on their usual evening walk. The courtyard of the Devi Temple resounded with the cries of boys playing cricket. A couple of cats were prowling around.
“What’s happened to our cat?” Furrowing his eyebrows her father said, “She must have been raped by the tomcats.”
They walked around the colony, Leela chatted about her life in Chicago: her sons, her husband, her job, painting a positive, glowing picture. Her father spoke about the neighbors and passersby. Some of the older residents, who first arrived when this colony had been built some forty years ago, were still around, but younger families with infants and toddlers, even teenagers, now occupied many of the houses.
Her father pointed to a salmon-colored bungalow. “Salvi there, lost his wife to cancer,” he said. They passed the home of someone with a son in California, the parents had just returned after visiting him. Leela had given up asking her parents to visit Chicago. She knew what the answer would be. Once her father had told her plainly, “Our age is such that the end could come at any time, so it is important for us to be near our roots.” They saw Shankar Kaka walking towards them.
“Inbound or outbound” he asked Leela. Leela blinked, uncertainly. He beamed at her. “Do you know why we do namaste? This is an ancient recipe for long life.”
“Yes, yes, you already told me,” she said.
On their return journey, Leela and her father walked through the park. From the nagchampa tree came a sound: Plink! Plink!
“What was that?” Leela asked.
“A bird,” her father said.
“But, what kind of bird?” Leela asked, looking up at something hidden in the tall branches. “If you had the Internet, I could tell you.”
“You can get that from the Internet?” her father asked.
“Yes.” Encouraged, Leela said, “And if you had the Internet, I could email you.”
“Not interested. I have no interest in learning anything new now.”
Her parents seemed frailer every year. She shuddered remembering a recent scene: her father wobbling as he flung a bucket of water to clean up the mess made by the cat in the backyard. Rain pelted the ground just as thunder rolled and lightning flashed.
Her mother had been going blind for forty years. Her eyesight had started failing at forty. After breakfast, Leela’s job was to put a drop of the juice of onions and ginger in each eye—an ayurvedic remedy.
“Does this work? She asked her mother.
“Very much! You don’t know how much my eyes have improved.”
Her mother insisted on making breakfast. There had been some leftover clam cakes in the fridge. Her mother thought they were boiled potatoes and added them to the beaten rice poha. Those who ate the dish were none the wiser. When her mother stuck her head in the fridge, groping for the clam cakes for lunch, she could not find them. “Who could have taken them?” she wondered. Only later did she realize that the clams had been added to the poha.
At such moments she would admit, “I really can’t see anything, Leela.”
Around 4:00 pm, her mother sometimes joined the other women who sat on the stone benches around the swing in the park. It was the usual group of elderly ladies and an occasional elderly gentleman. Gubbi who had been a teacher, was the senior most, and presided over them all. Leela thought about her sister’s hour-long phone call from London regaling her with tidbits from her last visit to Mumbai,
“…One day—can you believe it?—a monkey, about four feet tall, popped up from behind that stand of bamboos. He sat on the swing next to the stone benches where these ladies sat. They were terrified! He was rocking himself coolly back and forth. Gubbi stood up. Staring over the rims of her glasses in a school-mistressy way, she shook her head at the monkey.
“Go away, Baba”, she said, raising her umbrella, “Go away. You should not be sitting here.”
The monkey bared his teeth and snarled. Gubbi leapt backwards. All the other women sat rigidly, avoiding the monkey’s gaze. When the monkey left, Gubbi turned on them angrily. “None of you stood by me and helped. You just kept staring into your laps.”
“What could we do?” They protested. “He would have attacked us!”
“Monkey?” her mother said, “I thought a man was sitting there. I cannot see anything. Don’t you know?”
The sisters had laughed then, but later Leela had been concerned.
Despite her poor vision, her mother watched the cooking channel and four soaps on TV regularly, pulling her chair close, leaning forward and peering into the screen. On the cooking show, today, they were talking about tofu pizza. Her mother memorized all the ingredients.
“I won’t eat that. I am telling you right now,” Leela’s father announced as he came slowly down the stairs, his slippers slapping against the concrete of the steps.
Her father came down to watch their favorite soap about a joint family where everyone was at war with everyone else. On this episode, the hero announced that he was going to take sanyas, renounce the world.
When it ended, her father said. “That is what I should do now. Take sanyas.”
“You can’t have your whisky if you take sanyas.” Her mother reminded him. “And you won’t get dosas for breakfast.”
“I would find it difficult to do without those,” he admitted.
At dinner, Leela said. “Do you realize how much coconut there is in this fish curry? Do you know how high in cholesterol this is?”
“Have we not lived this long?” Her father said.
Leela had read that in Oregon, a doughnut place had begun offering doughnuts to senior citizens after 11:00am. Seniors could eat all the doughnuts they wanted for free. There was a letter in the paper complaining. Doughnuts had fats the letter said; they were full of carbs and were bad for health. The doughnut shop stopped offering free doughnuts to seniors. The seniors were furious; they picketed the store with placards, shouting: “We want our doughnuts!” “We want to have our cake and eat it too.” “Who are you to tell us what to eat?” Her father would have approved.
“If only I had my sight.” Her mother said one afternoon. “Then everything would be alright.”
“Can you see nothing then Ma?” Leela asked.
“I can just see an outline. It’s a blur. But my eyesight has improved so much. All the blackness around the edges has gone. Ever since I started doing the acupressure and pranayama … It’s just the glasses.” Her mother’s mouth twisted. “This pair gives me a headache. If only I could get the correct prescription! I need someone to take me to a doctor who can give me the correct pair of glasses. It’s very hard for your father to travel that far and cross roads.”
“I’m here. I can take you.” Leela said to her mother.
“Do you think I would not have taken her?” Her father said before turning to go up the stairs. Addressing Leela sotto voce, he said, “She does not have any lenses in her eyes.”
“Let’s make an appointment, then.” Leela said turning to her mother.
“It’s far.” Her mother said doubtfully.
“We’ll take a cab.” The expression on her mother’s face was unreadable.
“Let’s at least try. What the name of that specialist?”
“Kama Atya sang the praises of Sardesai.”
“Kama Atya!” That was Leela’s father’s older sister who had passed away four years ago at the age of eighty-nine.
“Your father will take me.”
“I’ll make an appointment. Right now!”
“Yes, but,” her mother stalled, “It is not that easy to get an appointment. It takes months to see these specialists. In a few days you will be in Chicago. What can you do?
One afternoon, Leela tried to organize the kitchen. Some drawers were empty, some spoons were missing. The storage containers were empty. There were stainless steel pots and pans that looked untouched.
“What are you saving these for?” She wondered. “I’ll go to the store and get you an immersion heater,” she told her father, “so you don’t have to heat water on the gas stove, every morning”.
Her father was offended. “Can’t we get it ourselves?” he asked. “Do you think we are incapable of looking after ourselves? That we are so backward and you have come and teach us? And what will happen after you leave?”
That evening when they went for their walk, her father pointed out to Leela a house along the way. He told her how years ago when he was on his customary walk, an old woman who used to live there ran to the balcony and called out, “Good you came. Have you brought your pistol? Do dham! Finish off that daughter-in-law of mine.” He could not remember the old woman’s name who was by now long deceased.
Next day, her father confided that sleep had eluded him because he could not remember the old woman’s name, “But when I asked your mother,” he said admiringly, “from the depths of sleep she said, ‘Mrs. Godbole!’”
Leela was returning from the dhobi at the edge of the park with a load of freshly ironed clothes wrapped in a newspaper when the sky suddenly turned dark. From a distance she saw Shankar Kaka crossing the park. He appeared to stumble and fall. By the time Leela reached the spot, a knot of had gathered and were carrying Shankar Kaka away.Apparently, he’d tripped over an exposed tree root. Later, she heard the ambulance.
The rain was drumming on the roof. Her mother lay on the downstairs divan, saying her prayers, seeing Leela, she remarked, “In just another week, you’ll be off. We keep waiting and waiting for your arrival, and before you know it, it’s time to go.”
Leela appeared preoccupied. “Ma, are you afraid of dying?” She asked.
“No, not at all!”
She had asked her father the same question when he lay on his bed after completing his Sudoku puzzle. It was one of the difficult ones and it had taken him nearly four hours, but he had completed it, he noted with satisfaction. “I’ll tell you later, hunh! I’ll have my nap first.”
The next evening a circular came around that Shankar Kaka had died in the hospital. How could that be? Leela thought. She had just met him the day before and he had commented on her health.
A few days after Shankar Kaka’s cremation, her father attended the memorial at his house. Returning home, he murmured to himself, “In the end what it comes down to is—a bag of ashes.”
Leela and her mother were seated at the dining table. Her mother was chopping onions; the cook’s bangles jingled as she rolled out chapattis for dinner. She was telling them how a couple days ago, in one of the high rises, a servant’s child had been clowning on the ledge of the servants’ quarter balcony. The girl lost her footing and hurtled down four stories. She was rushed to the government hospital, “But,” the cook added, with a smile that showed her paan-stained snaggle teeth, “She survived!”
“Now you’ve said something good.” Leela’s mother said. “Your news that day about the Parsi youth was very depressing.”
“Yes, that twit of a girl has a good destiny,” the cook admitted.
They heard a familiar meowing from the boundary wall. It sounded like Burmese Princess. “She’s alive!” Her father said entering the house. His face shone with joy.
Has the cat replaced me in my parents’ affections? Leela wondered. Even she felt hopeful. She picked up a bowl, carefully pouring a stream of milk into it, and opened the door.
“Look!” Her mother exclaimed, “Leela’s feeding the cat!”
Ravibala (Ravi) Shenoy lives in Naperville, IL. She won the first prize in the 2007 Katha contest for her short story, The Sacrifice. She has been published in Sugar Mule, The Copperfield Review, The Chicago Tribune and VOYA: Voice of Youth Advocates. A retired librarian, she has been a reviewer for a well-known professional reviewing journal since 2007 and is a book review editor for Jaggery.
The judges were Indu Sundaresan and A.X. Ahmad.
“A Bag of Ashes touches upon a very real fear among the Indian diaspora—aging parents and a chasm of miles separating them from their grown children. The story is a keen examination of a moment of time measured in two short weeks and a complete picture of the lives of the protagonists, their pasts and their present.”
“A very quiet, literary short story that is an exploration of an issue faced by so many Indian Americans: the plight of our parents, who are growing old back in India. Beautifully written, and I enjoyed the character of the former pilot, who creates a narrative arc for the story, and the use of the cat to show the protagonist’s transformation.”
Indu Sundaresan was born and brought up in India and came to the United States for graduate school. She’s the author of five novels and a collection of short stories. The Twentieth Wife (book #1 of the Taj trilogy) won the Washington State Book Award. Her latest novel, The Mountain of Light, is based on the Kohinoor diamond and its last Indian owners. More at:www.indusundaresan.com
A.X. Ahmad is the author of The Caretaker, the first in a trilogy featuring ex-Indian Army Captain Ranjit Singh. His second book, The Last Taxi Ride, will be published in June 2014. A former international architect, he lives in Washington, D.C. and teaches writing. www.axahmad.com