At the end of her tenure as mother, she leaves Manchester for her parents’ home in Dehradun to enact what she doubts they will recognize as a pilgrimage. Once in Dehradun, she does not have the strength to dissemble, and she compromises with herself despite the fierce conviction that she is not obliged to compromise, ever again. She compromises neither by lying about nor by revealing the truth of her planned pilgrimage to her parents. She compromises by remaining silent in the face of their questions and instructions. What she saves her strength for: leaving them hobbled together on the verandah, her mother holding steady her now nearly-blind father with one hand, sari end clenched between her teeth freeing the other hand to wave at the car pulling the daughter away through folds of brown and green mountains.
In Rishikesh, she forgets them as she has forgotten those left behind in Manchester. She does not visit the Ghats. She makes herself forget her children’s wild joy the year before, as they floated twinkling lights in spinning boats of sewn leaves. “To Delhi!” they had cheered. “No,” she had said, “not Delhi. The Ganges doesn’t go to Delhi.”
She takes the Shatabdi Express to Agra and acquiring an unexpected companion there—a boy younger by far than herself—crisscrosses back to Delhi with him. They take the accommodation in South Extension. To their relief, it is given to them at the same weekly rate of 1000 rupees per night, exclusive of utilities, laundry, and food, that they are quoted in the Delhi Tourism Office. The rooms are dusty. There is an overlarge front room their host says is the drawing room, where his dead wife’s numerous self-portraits hang. There is a cramped bedroom, a closet sized bathroom, and down the hall, a kitchen they share with the other tenants of the house.
Mr. Kapoor introduces them to Megha, who ducks her head in assent to everything he has to say. Afterwards, trying to recall Megha, all she can remember is the sharpness of the part in her hair, a mismatch for her plump shyness. Mr. Kapoor speaks in a certain weary code: “cancer,” pointing to his wife’s self-portraits in the drawing room, “call centre worker,” pointing to Megha’s bobbing head, “sleeping,” referring to Arun, whose door he opens without knocking.
When Mr. Kapoor leaves, she looks at Marc for a moment. Megha slides back into her room, and then they are alone in the hallway of introductions. She opens their door, the bags are pushed in and they follow, shut the door and lock it with the key Mr. Kapoor has provided. For good measure Marc slides the reluctant top bolt into place, and she pushes in the bolt by the door handle.
With a giggle, she slides her hand into his front pocket, but he, already weary from the effort of the bolt, is turning to the television. She watches him destroy the strange symmetry of cushions, balanced on point and in an uncomfortable row down the length of a bony sofa, in his search for the remote. A minute later, he has abandoned his failed search and is on his haunches, one hand cupping his chin and the other relentlessly depressing the channel button adjacent to the screen as he switches through a multitude of offerings.
She turns and explores the flat and feels a stirring of delight when she discovers the balcony. It is narrow and latticed in thick concrete lace. Where there should be light, there are shadows she welcomes.
She unpacks both their bags, fills the plastic bucket in the bathroom, mixes in the laundry soap and washes the dirty clothes that have been accumulating since Agra. Now it is she who is on her haunches, the long tail of her kurta tucked tightly between her calves and buttocks. The concrete floor is free of the mossiness of the bathroom in Agra. She jettisons worries about fungal infections and relishes the feel of water on the bare bottom of her feet, and when her kurta slips out as she swivels from one pile of garments to the next, she removes it and her salwar, then her too tight bra and underwear.
When the laundry is done she carries it out to the balcony where she ties together the cords from three salwars, lashes them to a length of wire looped in the corner and stretches her creation back and forth, crisscrossing the narrow space of air. Taking care to first wipe the wire clean, she hangs his jeans, her salwars and kameezes, his t-shirts and boxers, her blessedly clean underwear. She lingers behind the gauzy window of pink that is her dupatta. The clothes crowd around her in mild movement and their gentle wet slaps rebuke her naked arms, breasts, and ribs. In the heat of the afternoon, she shivers and thinks, “I might be seen.”
She has to thrust her face into the lattice and only then can she see out. She has allowed this apparent obscurity to lull her. Now she hides between the rows of clothes hanging around her and skirts all three walls, pulling items of clothing around her as she steps forward to peer through the openings. Two of the walls open to sky, and below that, a still market lane of motley shacks. The third wall, she discovers, abuts the balcony of the property wedged next door to Mr. Kapoor’s. She had not noticed from the outside, but the houses are built with no space between them, just the superfluity of two sets of walls in a tight kiss, so that they are suctioned, one to the other. But neither do the two balconies, nor do the houses themselves, bear any relationship of symmetry or accord any thought to each other.
The balcony next door is built a good four feet higher so that she can see at eye level, through the openings in the lattice, the floor next door. It contains a jumble of abandoned cots, tools and wooden boards, a plastic container—the kind used for storing drinking water—and a few steel cups tumbled in wood shavings. The house next door appears to be under construction, and perhaps the workers have broken for lunch and will return. She beats a retreat.
Marc is still in front of the television—no longer perched on his toes, no longer seated on his haunches, but now sprawled on his front; still close enough to the instrument to control it with his forefinger. She lays herself facedown on his back. Her own back dries from the quick suck of the air conditioner that he has turned on. She thinks to clean him somehow before she begins. His clothes are stiff with the dirt of the train journey; his hair, lank and fine, smells salty to her, and in the delicate creases at the back of his young neck, little twisted rubbings of black grease alternate in the neat pattern of a feathery stalk of wheat. She licks him there, and he relents, sinks his chin from his cupped palm and releases his head. She licks methodically till he unlocks the elbows on which he is braced and lowers his chest and then his head to the floor. She abandons her earlier plan to bathe him and works against the hard floor as she digs under him for the buttons of his fly. Once unbuttoned, she turns him over. The salt-scent rising from him sharpens.
He is a selfish lover, and that is how she prefers him. They are practiced in their selfishness, for all they have known each other only these nine days. She has blown him thus: tiredly now, and in the beginning relentlessly, with all of the technique and innovation at her command, to keep him with her. From Agra, she has brought him with her to Delhi.
When she is done, she moves up his length to look at his sleepy face. On the television screen, an advertisement for contact lenses urges changing the more or less fixed brown of Indian eyes. The flickering light of the screen scatters on his face, and in the late afternoon dark of the heavily curtained drawing room, he blinks in and out of her vision. She searches for the sheen of moisture that gathers in dew on the fine hairs of his upper lip.
Even after he turned three, the cutoff she had outlined to him, her younger son had insisted on continuing nursing, and further insisted on exercising this right in the most public of places and always with her seated and while standing himself between her knees. He had insisted loudly and earnestly—after a burger at the Burger King, the crumbles of meat spraying from his mouth; when they stopped to rest on the bench outside the pet store at the mall; and in the parking lot, with the driver’s seat pulled back to its furthest and with his chubby back braced against the steering wheel.
And when her younger son pulled his face back from her, his sly eyes filled with laughter, and disdainful of his brother’s disapproval, then there was this same sheen of spent pleasure on his upper lip, and sometimes a droplet or two of her watery offering sliding from plumped upper lip to chin. At such times she had not known what, if anything, that she felt, was truly hers. There was always the huge surge of embarrassment that they were engaged thus, at his age, and with her limp breasts.
Alongside this, there was the gratitude that she could so simply satisfy such great need. And then there was also the dread of his impending flight from her on the same trajectory his brother had taken—a trajectory that allowed her first-born the distant and cool appraisal with which he had taken to viewing her. Gently, she releases the sleeping Marc’s face, turning it toward the television, so that when he wakes it will be in the preferred cradle of its oblivion.
She had met Marc outside the doctor’s office at the government clinic in Agra and offered to help him with the necessary translation. The doctor had bypassed the three-step process of French to English to Hindi and back by easily communicating his expertise and anger as he gestured for the pants to be pulled down, held up the syringe, turning to her with a sharp “antihistamine,” and proceeded with a brutal haste that forced her back and out of the room. She apologized to the boy later for not staying and conveyed the awkwardness of the idea that the doctor had disapproved of her seemingly being with him, a foreigner.
They stumbled forward. In Agra, in French, she was able to say what had eluded her since her flight from Manchester. “Mes fils,” she said, and her eyes remained dry. Her sons can only be viewed in a hasty jerk of her head over her shoulders, so the eyes slide in a split second past the vision of two sturdy boys belted into their car seats, and then out the window of her two-door, single-mom, second-hand, Toyota Tercel to take in her car crushed into the expressway barrier. Her eyes blink, obliterating what they have seen. Her sons are distant and dwindling specks, fixed against the static horizon of that barrier, which she flees. To look too long is to be sucked back. She is on a pilgrimage, she explained to Marc, and he said he would like to be on a pilgrimage as well. Not on this pilgrimage, she replied. But it was weak, and he knew it, because he followed her to her hotel, claiming she still owed him translation services. At this, she laughed and let him into her room.
From outside the drawing room, she hears the tap tapping of hammers. There is lightness to the sound. These tools, she thinks, are made light, for smaller hands, or made cheaply, for poorer people. In the bedroom, she removes from her bag the small lota which her mother has wrapped in an endless length of fabric. Perhaps her mother had thought to stave off this inevitable scattering. Certainly the numerous knots had eluded her in Agra. She had stood with the awkward bundle, defeated in the effort to find a spot away from the crowd, ignored the curious looks of those around her and picked and picked at the wrapping. In the end, afraid of being found out for the foolishness of all her ideas about herself, most of all the idea of herself as a good mother, she had wept, turned and left.
She stands at the balcony door listening to the repeated tapping, the lengthy pauses, the cawing of a crow, and then she steps out. She stands and waits in between the hanging clothes. It is a long wait, and she feels herself seized with revulsion. The hammers fall silent. Accompanied by the scuffling sounds (how many faces pressed to the lattice—she tries to see and cannot) she thinks hard about what it is that she really feels.
Dry-eyed, she unwraps her bundle. This time it is easy. The knots are not really knots, just cloth twisting and crisscrossing, and deep inside the length of cloth there is a knot that slides free, revealing warm brass which gleams in the shade of the balcony. She tips the lota to the lattice that faces the street and market below. The lip of the jar catches the edge of the narrow opening in the concrete but cannot intrude beyond. Shaking out the contents is an awkward business. The brass and concrete where they meet and scrape make a rasping sound, and there is no breeze to carry the ashes that, soft and oily, disperse only slowly. Much of it mounds into the opening, and when the jar is empty she sets it down, kneels to the floor and, bringing her mouth close, blows. Little bits swirl back and stick to her lids and lips, but the rest float out, and before she can grasp the moment they are gone. She cannot remember the words her mother has taught her to say.
The year before, after remonstrating with them when they pleaded for their sewn-leaf boats traveling, if not to Delhi then to Agra, she promised her boys she would take them there someday. “To the Taj Mahal, to the Taj Mahal,” they had screamed, ambushing each other with imaginary laser guns. Having failed them, she prays, the words stumbling from her, “Please, take them to see the Taj.”
Mridula Koshy makes her home in New Delhi along with her partner and her three most rewarding creative efforts: Saleem, Akshay, and Surya. A collection of her short stories, If It Is Sweet, will be published by Tranquebar Press in 2008. Her short stories have been published, or are forthcoming, in Existere,Wasafiri, Atlas, The Dalhousie Review, and Prairie Fire. She has also had short stories published in a number of anthologies in India, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
Katha 2008 Results
FIRST PLACE (cash award $300): The Good Mother by MRIDULA KOSHY, New Delhi, India
SECOND PLACE (cash award $200): Rise by SHRUTI SWAMY, San Francisco, Calif.
THIRD PLACE (cash award $100): Neyyappams by JAYA PADMANABHAN, Los Altos Hills, Calif.
HONORABLE MENTION: My Sameena by RAJU CHEBIUM, Silver Spring, Md.
HONORABLE MENTION: Touch of Wrinkled Skin by SITA BHASKAR, Madison, Wis.