The household at 26 Tarak Prasad Roy Road has been abustle since daybreak, preparing for Korobi’s engagement. The maid has ground the spices for lunch and chopped a mountain of vegetables. The yawning cook has cut up the rui fish and marinated it in salt and turmeric. In the Durga Mandir, the family temple established over a hundred years ago, Old Bahadur yells threats at the gardener boy until the cracked marble floor is mopped to his satisfaction. Sarojini, Korobi’s grandmother, hurries in to arrange lamps, camphor holders, incense, sandalwood powder, marigolds, large copper platters, fruit, milk sweets, rice grains, gold coins and multicolored pictures depicting a pantheon of gods. Is she is forgetting anything? She loves the temple, but it also makes her nervous. Too many memories lurk in its sooty alcoves.
On one side she unrolls mats for the priest and for her husband, Bimal Prasad Roy, retired barrister and proud grandfather of the bride-to-be, on the other she has placed four low chairs for the Boses, family of the groom-to-be, because they are very modern and elegant and thus unused to sitting cross-legged on the ground.
Re-entering the house, Sarojini is swept into a sea of commotion. The milkman is rattling the side door; the phone rings; on the Akashbani Kolkata station, the newscaster announces the date: Feburary 27, 2002; Cook berates the neighbor’s striped cat for attempting to filch a piece of fish. Bimal summons Cook in querulous tones. Where on earth is his morning tea? His Parle-G biscuits? Cook replies (but not loud enough for Bimal to hear) that she doesn’t have ten arms like the goddess. The commentator on Akashbani is discussing the growing tension between India and Pakistan since the testing of the Agni missile. Then he is interrupted by a news bulletin: over 50 people dead in a train fire in Gujarat.
So many disasters in the world, Sarojini thinks as she climbs the stairs to Korobi’s bedroom.
A pity that one had to happen today, a day of more happiness than their family has seen in a long time. She opens the door to Korobi’s room, to help her granddaughter get ready for the ceremony.
There’s the girl, dawdling on the verandah in her thin nightgown for all the world to gawk at! Sarojini is about to scold her, but, leaning over the rail toward the row of oleanders that Anu had loved, Korobi looks so like her dead mother that the words die in Sarojini’s throat. Not her face or fair skin—in those Korobi resembles Sarojini—but that posture, that troublesome yearning toward the world, that radiant smile as she turns toward her grandmother.
In any case, Sarojini is no good at scolding. Bimal has always complained that she spoiled the girls—first Anu and then little Korobi—and thus did them a disservice. Sarojini admits he has a point; girls have to be toughened so they can survive a world that presses harder on women, and surely Bimal does a good job of that. But deep in a hidden place inside her that is stubborn as a mudfish, Sarojini knows she is right, too. Being loved a little more than necessary arms a girl in a different way.
“Come on now, Korobi, bath-water’s getting cold.”
Not that Sarojini had much of an opportunity to spoil Korobi. As soon as the girl was five, Bimal made arrangements with that boarding school in the freezing mountains. Sarojini begged to keep the child at home. She even wept, which was uncommon for her, and mortifying. After Anu’s death she had vowed to keep her griefs to herself.
“Look what happened the last time I listened to you,” Bimal said.
A rejoinder shot up to her tongue. Whose fault is it that my daughter’s dead? At the last moment she pulled it back into herself. If the words had crystallized into being, she couldn’t have continued living with Bimal, she couldn’t have borne it. But she didn’t know any other way of being. Also this: she loved him. His suffering stung her. Yes, he suffered for Anu’s death, though he would not speak of it. Even now he startles awake at night with a groan, and lying next to him Sarojini hears—sometimes for an hour—the ragged, sleepless thread of his breathing.
But this is no time for morbid thoughts. Luncheon smells rise from the kitchen—khichuri made with golden mung and Gopal Bhog rice from their ancestral village, sauteed brinjals, cabbage curry cooked with pure ghee and cardamoms. Sarojini will have to supervise the fish-fry. Last time Cook, who is getting old, scorched the filets and collapsed into tears. But first Sarojini must get Korobi dressed. The child is always dreaming. Listen to her now, singing with abandon in the bathroom as though it were a holiday.
Sarojini knocks on the bathroom door. “Hurry, hurry, so much to be done. Sari, hair, makeup, jewelry. The mustard-seed ceremony to avert the evil eye. If you’re not ready by the time Rajat’s party arrives, your grandfather will have a fit.”
While Korobi was away at school, all year Sarojini would hunger for winter break, when icicles hung from the eaves of the old school buildings and the children were sent down to the plains. But somehow when Korobi came home, the two of them never got to do the things Sarojini had planned. It seemed that whenever she tried to teach Korobi how to make singaras stuffed with cauliflower, or layer the woolens with camphor balls to save them from moths, Bimal called the girl away to play chess or accompany him to the Book Fair. Only at bedtime did Sarojini get her granddaughter to herself. “Tell me about Ma,” the girl would whisper in the dark, the forbidden request forging a bond between them. Sarojini would swallow the ache in her throat and offer her something innocuous: a childhood escapade, a favorite color, a half-remembered line from a poem that Anu liked to recite.
“Why did she name me Korobi?’
“Because she loved oleanders so much, shona.”
“But they’re poisonous! You told me so. Why would she name me after something so dangerous?”
Sarojini didn’t know the answer to that.
Now Korobi is getting married, leaving Sarojini struggling under the weight of unsaid things, things she had promised Bimal she would never speak of.
She pushes the thought away, unfolding the stiff pink silk sari she had bought, so many years ago, for Anu. She tucks it around her granddaughter’s slender waist, admonishing the girl when she fidgets, making sure the pleats show off the gold embroidered border. When she is satisfied, she starts on the jewelry—her beloved dowry jewelry. She pins the gold disc in the shape of a sunburst to Korobi’s braid and stands back to evaluate. The girl has lovely hair, not that she takes care of it. Mostly it’s left untied, a mass of tangled curls cascading down her back.
The long necklace with a crescent-shaped diamond pendent, the earrings so solid they have to be supported by little chains that hook to Korobi’s hair. Each piece has its name: mantasha, chandra chur, makar bala. Not many people know them anymore. Sarojini had tried to teach Korobi, but the girl wasn’t interested.
It was Rajat, though, who surprised Sarojini. Last week he had come to take Korobi for a ride in his new BMW, but he ended up sitting on Sarojini’s bed for a half hour, touching each piece, listening to its story. That disc belonged to my widow aunt, who left it behind when she ran away. My father gave this necklace to my mother when my oldest brother was born.
My great-grandfather the gambler won the snake-band from a neighboring landowner while playing pasha.
That evening when Korobi returned from the ride, Sarojini said, “You’re lucky to get him for a husband.”
“Excuse me? I thought he was the lucky one!”
Sarojini laughed along with her granddaughter, but secretly she hoped Rajat would cancel out all the tragedies that had piled up in the girl’s life already.
Chitra Divakaruni teaches Creative Writing at the University of Houston. Her latest novel is Oleander Girl. In 2011, along with Salman Rushdie, she received a Light of India award. She invites India Currents readers to join her at http://www.facebook.com/chitradivakaruni for literary conversation.