Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Indra sighed and walked away from the watchman and his snoring symphony over to the compound wall which had served as chair, ladder and look out point all through her childhood. It was hiding behind this wall she observed Chandru Mama at No 52 embrace the maid Selvi, as she hung clothes out to dry. It was on this wall she stood every summer (till Amma decided she was too old to be climbing walls) and flung stones at the Xavier’s mango tree, always missing the succulent fruits swollen with ripeness. When the neighbourhood descended in to power cut induced darkness Indra and her sister would rush out with a stumpy white candle each and light them along the wall, plunging their fingers in to the warm pooling wax as though sealing secret missives to far off kingdoms. Indra hoisted herself up on to the walls rough ledge and stared at the emptiness around her.
“It’s just a house Indra. Land, bricks and cement” her husband Madhav snapped when he found her going through an old photo album once the demolition date was set. “I don’t see what’s so terrible. You and your sister are each getting a flat, same size, same everything. What’s to cry about?”
Indra shook her head and wiped away the tears falling on old black and white picture of her family. She was standing on the bonnet of Appa’s Ambassador car, dressed as Gandhi for a fancy dress competition. How could she explain it to him? The house was a part of her: a repository of memories, secrets and dreams. There was the backyard tap she had hit her head on and needed sixteen stitches for. The bathroom she locked her grandmother in for a whole day when she shouted at Indra for disturbing her prayers. The hall cabinet where the cane that came out afterwards was placed alongside a corpulent laughing Buddha, porcelain dolls and the Johnson’s baby cream applied to the red welts that pushed their way up across her back. Her bedroom with its candy coloured walls and Formica cupboard covered in Mandrake stickers covered with posters of matinee idols. The living room with its wicker sofa set and mismatched cushions Indra curled up on each morning to drink Complan; and as she grew older Amma’s thick brown coffee. The giant rosewood swing she would push as Amma lay down and rested her legs swollen with arthritis. The uneven terrace floor she paced as she read history notes and clandestine, sulphurous love letters from the boy in Chemistry lab. The unused storage room that became a bedroom for those four days every month when the women were barred from using the rest of the house. She had slept, cried, trembled and laughed over its every square inch. How would Madhav understand when her own family didn’t? And they were the reason she felt the way she did.(clumsy)
It all started after Indra’s sister was born. Indra’s excitement on the day Amma and Appa brought home her newborn sister was short lived. Within the hour Appa shouted at her for not holding the baby properly, and inaugurated what would be years of fault finding and punishment. It was after her sister’s arrival that the canings began. Perhaps Appa wanted to beat out each and every one of Indra’s shortcomings, things he had always been aware of, but were now more obvious next to the perfection of her sister. The look in her father’s eyes when they gazed at her sister: the joy, pride, the love - he never looked at Indra like that. When he deigned to look at Indra his eyes would become slits of suspicion. With his coconut oiled thick hair, stocky body and fondness for bland food, Indra knew her willowy frame, stubborn curls and ability to eat pickle neat were looked upon with distrust. Indra was nothing like her father, or as she had often heard him say, ‘like anyone in his family’. Amma had none of Appa’s anger, but harboured something far worse - indifference. She had turned her back on Indra and looked to her second-born and garden - tender, young things that she could not be blamed for. They had kicked Indra out of their cosy inner circle and she found comfort in the house. Its seepage stained walls listened tirelessly to her, absorbing her hopes and dreams till they were saturated. Indra often caught a flash of jealousy in her sister’s face – as though she were envious of Indra’s freedom and the lack of expectation others had of her. Her sister was stuck in the coconut oil scented ring of their parent’s love and Indra appropriated the last bastion of refuge – the house - for herself.
Indra fanned herself with the embroidered edges of her sari. The sun was right over her head and she felt herself melting like her old wax candles. Indra smiled as she remembered the day she had married Madhav. She had leaned against this wall and wept as her life was loaded in to the new Maruti Appa had bought them. Her mother murmured a few harried words to her, distracted by the list of important things left to do: there were shiny new silver containers to distribute to the closest of family and friends, red and green blouse pieces to be given to the second tier of acquaintances, jewellery to be transferred to the bank locker and sacks of coconuts to give away. Appa had come up to Madhav with a distraught look on his face that bordered on pity and held his hand.
“She’s a very spoilt girl - don’t mind if she does something wrong.”
It was a tried and tested line, uttered on every wedding day real and celluloid for generations. It was at that moment Indra realised she was not crying at the thought of leaving her parents and sister. After all, they would have to visit each other. It was the sorrow of saying goodbye to her home. It was the knowledge that from that day onwards she would wake up in another room in another house, without the nagachampas to greet her. The familiar call of Shivaraman the vegetable vendor, the shrill whistle of their milk cooker, the suprabatham cassette that always jumped at the third stanza – none of them would make their way to her ears. Her tongue and hand would have to be retrained to recite and write out a new address. A new identity.
It had not been easy in Madhav’s house. It was her mother-in-law’s domain and had been for over thirty years. The oppressive dark brown cabinets, red velvet sofas and mottled mosaic floor depressed Indra and the more her mother-in-law clung to her power the guiltier Indra felt about denying her sister their home. Indra felt she should apologise, make things right and decided to bring the matter up on the occasion of the first Deepavali after her marriage to Madhav. Tradition dictated that Indra and Madhav celebrated it at her home. Or rather at her ‘parent’s home’ as her mother-in-law insisted she call it.
Amma as usual had been busy in the kitchen preparing lunch and distributing sweets and festival bonuses to servants, milkmen and cable boys, mindful as always of the social order and doling out her largesse accordingly. Appa and Madhav sat before the television watching an endless stream of movie songs and bad interviews with actresses who giggled and hair flicked more than they spoke. It was an easy way out of having to engage in the guarded, uncomfortable small talk that men related as they were, were forced to make. Indra and her sister were dispatched to give sweets to their neighbours and receive blessings from those Amma deemed worthy of doling them out.
“Don’t go to Neela’s house. She doesn’t have any children.” Amma instructed, as though the functioning of their reproductive organs could in some way be affected by another woman’s failed uterus. But they knew better than to argue and ducked as they passed Neela’s house. As they walked back from Chandru Mama’s house (where Indra had longed to ask after Selvi), adjusting their dazzling saris of copper sulphate blue and guava pink, Indra cleared her throat and began.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” She began as the customary Deepavali drizzle sent all the children scurrying inside, leaving behind a mound of sodden empty firecracker boxes.
“Hmm. Tell me”
“I just wanted to say… well you know… it’s just that…”
“Indra please walk a little faster, I don’t want to get wet. Plus, there’s a Surya interview on TV at 11:00.”
Indra decided to talk to her sister after lunch. But Amma and Appa had made it unnecessary by announcing they were selling the house to developers who would build a set of luxury apartments. Apart from a considerable amount of money, they were receiving three flats – one for them, one for Indra and one for her sister. After lunch she and Madhav who was overjoyed at his good luck: a car and half a property from his father-in-law, left.
Trailing her fingers along the walls cracked face Indra walked to far end of the compound where the old garden shed stood. Indra rested the palm of her hand against its weather beaten door and pushed. It was always the stubborn one. The carpenter had taken the wrong measurements, and once it was up Appa refused to pay for it to be taken down and re-cut. After three hard shoves the door groaned open. Indra stepped in to its dark confines and the smell of rotting terracotta planters, monsoon soaked walls and rusty gardening tools shrouded her.
Indra sat down on a pile of ancient fertiliser bags. She hadn’t been here since she was thirteen and had failed a science mid-term. Fearing Appa’s wrath and the sting of his worn wooden cane she had come to the shed straight after school and hid beneath a sheet of tarpaulin. She only planned to stay for an hour to calm down and prepare for the inevitable. But after cycling home in the afternoon sun the cool, dampness of the shed put her to sleep. It was a stinging slap and her mother’s high-pitched cry of ‘Thank God!’ that woke her up. Amma wept dramatically while Appa looked on somewhat relieved, but angry. They had taken her inside where she was bathed in hot water and lovingly fed by Amma before sent to Appa and his cane. For some reason, the punishment that night was worse than usual – perhaps rage at the fact they had found her. Indra came down with a delirious fever, slipping in and out of consciousness for a week.
Indra picked up a broken pot and brushed the mud clinging to its base. The incident was over twelve years ago but she could remember it so clearly. Her cowering body, the manic almost otherworldly look on Appa’s face, the grunts that punctuated the rhythmic fall of the cane, the change in schools so that no one asked awkward questions. The family meeting where matters were discussed behind closed doors and after which it was referred to as ‘the accident’ – as though Indra had repeatedly fallen on her father’s cane out of clumsiness. It was the last time Indra was punished. The cane and the incident were dispatched to a place no one could see or speak of it. It was the family’s way of dealing with things. What they didn’t like they hid from sight or got married off.
Indra slid down and sat on the dank floor. They had shut her out once before, but she had been able to seek refuge in the warm embrace of her home. And now they had taken that away from her too. She curled her legs beneath her body, rested her head on the lumpy sacks of manure and closed her eyes. There was only one place left for her. Her family would know where to look.