This one’s for Grandma
Surya shivered as the sleety wind did its best to find chinks in her winter armour. She stamped her feet, trying to dispel the numbing cold and her mounting impatience in one go. The 114 finally came trundling down the road. It groaned to a halt, spluttering out smoke and passengers. Shuddering all the while as though it too felt the cold.
The driver grunted as she flashed her pass at him. The bus lurched forward and she stumbled into the first available seat. Her neighbour’s face was obscured by the faux fur collar of her coat, but the faint smell of turmeric and the bindhied forehead gave her away. Bulging plastic bags were clasped to her chest like well fed pups. Out of the corner of her eye, Surya saw chipped maroon talons pull out a tube. ‘Fair Always’ it proclaimed. The woman squeezed the tube releasing a sluggish yellow river that flowed through the crisscrossing tributaries of her fate. Camphor, saffron and a 9-year old girl’s fear burst out.
'Surya! Surya! Wake up. Lazy girl.' The covers had been whipped off before she could protest. Surya opened her eyes and looked sullenly in to the murky, cataract ridden eyes of her Paati.
'Who are you scowling at, hmm? ' Surya knew better than to reply and silently rolled up her bedding and made her way to the outhouse. Paati had hobbled after her as though to make sure she didn't fall asleep on the way.
As Surya went about her morning ablutions, Thangam the maid and Paati began a daily ritual of their own.
'Look how dark she is' Paati muttered – still unable to digest the fact that her son
(who was often mistaken for a fair Punjabi mind you) had produced such a dark offspring. And a girl at that.
'Look how she washes her face – how will the darkness go if she's so gentle? She needs to scrub harder' Thangam demonstrated with the coconut husk she was cleaning the vessels with.
The statement galvanised Paati in to action. Her self-diagnosed arthritis was forgotten as she leapt across the courtyard and grabbed hold of Surya's neck, mimicking Thangam's vigorous wrist action on her tender skin.
The bus stopped. Ms. Fair Always stared at Surya and then transferred her attentions to the smug, middleclass cars around them.
'Why don't you use the ointment I got from Neela’s?’ Paati had demanded ' Her daughter’s become white as milk.'
'Surya is fine. She doesn't need anything.' Her daughter-in-law retorted.
'Why would you want to change her –she's taken after you. You know, people think
Ravi is a-'
'I know, I know! A Punjabi. Maybe she's not Ravi's daughter after all.’
'Look at what she says! Shameless! When Ravi comes home I'll- what are you laughing at? Insolent girl.’
The memory of her grandmother’s impotent fury made Surya smile.
Mother and father were going out of town and Surya had begged to be taken along. She didn't want to be left alone with Paati. Mother had wiped away her tears and father had ruffled her hair. And then they left.
'Enough loitering at the gate. They've gone.' Paati had crowed.
Surya looked down the empty road and reluctantly went back inside.
'I want hot water to bathe Paati' she murmured.
'Oh ho! Did you hear that Thangam? Maharani wants hot water.'
Thangam sniggered in to her coffee.
'Shut up Thangam! Blackie.' Surya kicked an upturned bucket and received a smart slap from Paati in return.
'Who are you calling blackie? Huh? Dark as a coffee nut and so arrogant. Go!'
It was December, and the air was gently laced with cold. The idea of a hot bath was too good to resist. So she waited till Paati had adjusted her sobre, widow’s nine-yard sari and left for the temple. Cultivating her limp along the way for her audience of sympathetic cronies.
Thangam was washing clothes out back when Surya snuck in to the kitchen. A large aluminium vessel trembled on the stove – spitting out angry drops of boiling water every now and then. Mother had told her to keep away from fire but she shouldn’t have left her with Paati like this. Surya turned the knob as she had seen Mother do and stood on her tiptoes. She grasped the edges of the vessel with an old kitchen towel and had brought it down half way when-
'Thangam! Thangam! I forgot my coin purse. It’s in the kitchen.'
The 114 slowed down as it approached Surya’s stop.
The doctor had said she was lucky she hadn't been blinded. Mother had sobbed. Father had looked helpless. Only Paati had words.
'No hope now. Dark and disfigured. Nothing can be done.'
Surya turned to her neighbour.
'Excuse me. Can I try some of that cream?'
Slightly modified version. Only slightly.