We live in a big chaalee, a kind of old-fashioned five-story building that houses twenty small, two-room flats on each floor. Common bathrooms and toilets are located at the two ends of the building. I find several neighbors, the men who live on our floor, seated in our front room with my papa. Many neighbor women squat on our worn-out carpet in the inner room and weep noisily. I stand to one side because I don’t care for most of them. I hear their wailing, “Hai, hai, why did she have to leave us. So young too! And she has two young ones left behind! Who will take care of the little brats!”
I run up to my masi, my mother’s youngest sister Renuka, who has come to help us with Ba’s illness. In tears, I try to say something, but she brushes past me, to the inner room where my mother’s body is lain out on the floor. My masi’s arms are loaded with white sheets and Ba’s white sari with a blue border. She has a small, copper container on top of the folded sheets.
“Holy water from the river Ganga to anoint my sister,” she says to one of her children, as she tells the boy to be careful and not bump her.
From where I stand, I hear a woman whisper.
“He’s not capable of much, is he? He’s out all the time. These musicians always keep such late nights.”
“Mediocre sitar in a small restaurant, who listens! What can he do in the house? After all, a man?”
I hear a contemptuous sound.
“He’ll get married again, I tell you. All children need a mother to discipline them.”
I see their blatant stares. I hate what they just said. Is it sympathy, I wonder, as they look at my younger brother Manish, and me, we children who have just lost our mother.
In this big city of Mumbai, in the early days of June, there is a pregnant wait for the monsoons to arrive. The temperature is high, the air sultry, intermixed with whiffs of fried food coming from the flats downstairs, and so humid, it wrenches water out of my body. Having so many people in the house only makes it worse.
My mind focuses back on my other “problem.” It’s all happening at the wrong time. I stand there biting my nails when a sharp slap on the back of my hand shakes me up. Vasanti-masi has no right to slap me, but she is our friendly neighbor and at a time such as this, she and all the other neighbor masis must want to take charge and discipline us. I take my fingers out of my mouth but stand defiant, my eyes looking straight ahead. I will not look at her or lower my gaze. Manish clings to me in tears, seemingly afraid he’ll be yelled at if he makes a noise. I clasp my hand in his. I notice my father’s stern, emotionless face in the front room. He’s in the corner seat by the narrow window with the vertical bars, the window that overlooks a row of four-story buildings across the street. There is no place for sunshine to enter our two-room flat, even on a sunny day. I wonder if Papa will ever talk to me, have long conversations—like the way Ba talked, before she became ill. Will he give Manish a hug? My baby brother is only eight. He needs to be cared for, to be loved, like he was by Ba. I miss Ba already.
No one seems to have time. Besides, there is no one I trust, except perhaps that one masi who seems to have so much to do. I need answers to a kind of delicate question. I can’t even talk to my Lord Ganesh, the Elephant God, because I am too embarrassed. I look around and decide to walk over to the kitchen to sneak a cloth from the shelf and shove it between my legs, so it will take care of things. I hope they won’t notice my bulky underpants under my threadbare, flowery dress. Threadbare, simply because we are not exactly poor poor, but I have only four dresses at any one time and two sets of underclothes.
A hand on my shoulder stops me from leaving the room.
“Swamini, sit down with the ladies and cry loudly if you want to,” the woman says. “Even a pretense will do.” I glare at the well-endowed woman wearing a bright green sari, her long hair bundled at the nape. She wears a big red dot, the kumkum, on her forehead and plastic pearl studs.
I sit down on the cement floor. Our worn-out carpet falls short of where I sit, and the floor feels cold and hard. Sitting cross-legged with my face cupped between my hands, I let out a few loud sobs. I cry for many different reasons.
* * *
My mother’s name is Ganga. She is the fourth daughter in a family of eight children. I know her parents found a match for her very easily, because my masi told me so. Masi has told me my mother is the prettiest of all the sisters, but she is also the frailest.
“Your mother has a leaky valve in her heart. Don’t upset her.” Papa shouts at us when we make a fuss. “Help her by rolling the dough and baking the chapatis. Take responsibility, Mini.”
That’s all he ever says!
I have a habit of listening to my parents’ talk while pretending to be fast asleep at night on my mattress on the floor, next to my mother’s. Papa, a tall man with dark, serious eyes and a small moustache lounges on his cot by the wall. Manish sleeps on the other side of me. I hear Ba tell him that the doctor wants her to have surgery. Papa murmurs that surgery will cost a lot of money. Where are they to get it? In whispers Ba says she could ask her middle sister, the only one married into a rich family. That masi of mine is rich because they own two houses and they have no children to spend their money on.
I tell Manish very secretively the next day, when the two of us sit on a cloth mat in the kitchen, eating soft bread dipped in tea: “Our mother will be going to the hospital soon. She needs surgery on her heart.” I feel important because I have this grown-up knowledge, but I’m a little scared.
All Manish says is, “Minididi, will you help me pour hot water for my bucket bath when Ba’s not home? The bucket is too heavy for me.” He is not afraid for Ba like I am. He doesn’t seem to understand. Maybe because I am there for him. But Papa is there for both of us, I think. And then in a few days, she’ll be home from the hospital to wash and cook and braid my long hair.
Actually, I hate that rich uncle of ours because he never misses an opportunity to say Papa is a moody musician and doesn’t work hard enough to be a good provider for his family. Maybe he is right because Papa is never in the house, and even when he is, he doesn’t know what we need or what we do. There’s an instance I remember. I am ready for school and at the door I look at my chappals with their very worn-out soles. All of a sudden, I tell Papa I need a new pair of leather chappals because I can feel the hard road when I walk in mine. Papa looks at me like I’m asking for his right foot. Ba hears me and says, in a soft voice heaving up from the bottom of her chest: “Soon, Mini, I’ll ask your Papa to buy you some. Wear mine in the meantime. They have strong leather soles. I don’t go out much these days anyway.”
I am instantly gratified. I take down her chappals from the shoe rack by the door. Black leather straps and worn-in soles and they feel big, but comfortable on my small feet. I am glad I’m becoming her size.
Ba has not left the flat for months now. She can barely walk from one room to the next. When she does move, it is with slow, deliberate steps, her puffy legs making her gait unsteady. With her breath loud and heaving, she leans her weak body against the wall and rests every few minutes. Then she resumes walking.
One evening, my middle masi and her rich husband come to visit and stay for a long time while Papa is at work. He orders Manish and me to go downstairs to play. I know he doesn’t want us to hear the conversation. Next morning, I hear Ba tell Papa that her sister’s husband will not be able to loan us the large sum of money needed for her surgery, because there is no hope of getting any of it back.
“He is anxious to help us in other ways,” she says, “but I said no. I don’t want to separate Manish from Mini. He did say he will help us out with medicines and doctor’s bills.”
I hope medicines will help my mother. I believe they will too, with all my heart.
The last two weeks have just been a daze. Ba takes to her charpoy—actually it’s Papa’s cot—for the last ten days. It is the only proper bed in our home and it belongs to Papa. The rest of us sleep on mattresses on the floor which we roll up every morning and stack very neatly in a corner. Renuka-masi, who lives in our town has been summoned and she sleeps on a mattress next to my mother’s bed, and helps her through the night. During the day, she goes home to bathe and cook for her family. She brings food back with her for the three of us. Ba hardly eats.
“Mini, while I’m away, boil those herbs in water for at least thirty minutes, then decant them, add lemon juice and honey and feed the concoction to your mother, a few drops at a time.” She gives me many other precise minute-to-minute instructions besides. I stay home from school most days and run between the kitchen and my mother’s room, trying to catch up with my chores during the four or five hours that my masi is away.
* * *
I stand with my “problem,” awkward and bulky, not daring to move. My fists are tight by my side, my teeth clenched, I watch from the corner of the room as they prepare my mother for her last journey. Her sisters and the neighbor ladies wash and dry her. They unscrew her earrings and take out her gold bangles. Her arm seems heavy and shapeless as they pull the bangles off her wrists and replace them with glass ones. Instinctively, I look at her face to see if she winces, but her pale face is serene. Her long eyelashes look protective over her soft, closed, angelic eyes. They part her hair neatly and even braid the long strands. I hand my braid band to the lady who combs my mother’s hair. They drape my ba in her cotton white sari, the sari with the small blue border that I really like. As they turn and twist her, I see how stiff she is, like a log around which the cloth is rolled.
“Come into the inner room,” a neighbor lady calls out to Papa after Ba is fully prepared and lain flat.
He walks in, robot-like. He stares at her, then puts a big kumkum on her forehead, as he is told to do. It signifies she is married at the time of her death. Later they tell me my mother is blessed because she predeceases her husband. Then my eldest masi, the not-so-rich, plump one puts some holy water in my mother’s rigid hard-to-open mouth and covers my mother’s body with a white sheet. All the women bow their heads as they walk past, look at her peaceful face and try to contain their sobs in the folds of their soft cotton palloo, the sari end. Then all her sisters and brothers put marigold garlands around her neck. Her whole chest looks a field of bright yellow. Like the bright color of sun emanates from within her. I sense her strong presence within my barely teenage body.
Then the rest of the men, who have been waiting by the door, go through the procession. My father and brother and I are the last ones left in the room. I lead my brother up to stand beside her. I tell Manish to do exactly what I have seen my uncles and aunts do, because I look at Papa but he doesn’t even see me. So Manish and I touch her feet and bow our heads. I want her to hold me but her arms are all wrapped up. Seconds later, we walk out, leaving my father alone in the room with her. That is when I really want to cry, but somebody orders me to close the door to her room, so I do. When Papa finally emerges after what seems like a long time, he makes a sign to one of the uncles. I see them carry a wooden plank in and raise my mother on it. Several more marigold garlands are placed around her neck. A procession of men leave the house, walking through the streets chanting God’s name, “Hey Ram, Hey Ram” in rhythmic unison. I look from our window, but the city noises merge into the chanting and I can’t see them.
All the women just sit anywhere and everywhere in our three rooms for a while and then gradually they leave. Manish and I huddle together. My youngest masi, Renuka, comes to where Manish and I stand. She puts her arms around us, and I feel her warmth. She reminds me of my ba, the same odor of sandalwood paste coming from her skin, the kind my mother always rubbed on her wrists. I wish for Papa to come back soon, so he will say something to us, console us in some way, but he does not, even when he returns home hours later after the cremation. With Ba gone, perhaps he doesn’t want us any more.
I sit in the front room for a long time. I have plenty of time to think. Suddenly it occurs to me that “it” must be the curse my mother had when, for those five days every month, she sat to one side in a corner all day long and was not allowed to touch anything. She did not cook either and I had to get Manish ready for school. I never questioned Ba and she never explained. A friend I visited after school had the same routine when her mother “sat out,” as we called it. Ba said it was my chance to run a household for the time when I got married. Every girl needed to learn these things at a young age. A girl has to grow up, she had said.
Why had Ba not said this curse would actually come to me? Why me? Or had I cut myself? Maybe I’d die too. I see Ba’s leather chappals in the corner of the room. My rich masi trying to be helpful, is about to pick them up, saying something like, “I’ll give these to the beggar downstairs.”
I scream at her.
“Mine,” I say. “Ba said I am to have them.” I stand opposite her, stubborn-faced, my hand extended for them. Then I put my feet, one by one, into the little-too-big, comfortable, black-strapped chappals with the well-worn soles.
I walk back next to Manish. It is a cloudy evening, but the few marigold flowers scattered on the floor from earlier on, when Ba was there, are still bright yellow. I pick one up and crush the petals until the yellow juices get ingrained into my fingertips.
Much later, Manish whispers to me, “I’m hungry, Minididi.”
So I climb on a chair and reach up on the shelf for the biscuit tin. He eats the last two biscuits I give him. There is nothing left for me to eat.
Years later I realized, I became a woman the day my mother died.
Neela K. Sukhatme-Sheth is a retired pathologist embarking on a second career in creative writing. Currently she is working on a collection of short stories and a novel.