I know this house as well as it knows me. It may be bricks, mortar, wood, and sand, but it has been a good house. It has started to exist for me. It is strange to say that the inanimate can have an existence. It is true in my case. This house has a meaning for me. I can feel its existence. I feel safe here.
For many years, I was busy in married life, giving birth to children, and this house hardly occurred to me. I was living in it. I was sleeping in it. I hardly knew it existed. It has become a sanctuary for me. I can hide here. I have no fear. My living has extended here. I have grown up here in many ways. The sensitivity of my feelings I can now experience as never before. I realised I am not the “living dead” after all. I have died here many times and been reborn within these walls. These walls are a witness to this. I share my secrets with these walls.
Each of the fourteen rooms has a feel. They have personalities of their own. This depends on the time of the day, whether windows are open or closed. To my little son, the moonlight in sheets on the floor of the rooms I wander may be haunting, but I walk in these rooms any time of the night without hitch or hesitation. I can tell the time of day or night from any room. I have walked all the six staircases as often as I like, going up the first-floor rooms or the chaat looking down the aangan. I know the number of steps in each staircase. I know the doors with a step to cross over. I will never fall, even in pitch darkness.
The wooden entrance gate to the house leads into the largest courtyard at the front of the main entrance. This is flanked by a veranda on the east side and a high wall on the west. The entry door to the hall is on the south of the courtyard. I can hear the rhythm of the doors opening and the sound of the clap with the frame of the doors as they close. Whoever comes knocks the chain onto the heavy wooden doors. These sounds now are all so familiar to me. I can even tell who is at the door. Strangers make their own sound on tapping this chain.
The smallest courtyard is tucked deep in the west side of the house. It is exclusively for the use of my mother-in-law. It is in the centre of her suite with a kitchen around it, where the cook prepares breakfast and lunch, the bathroom and two rooms for her to rest in all day long. I do not go into these rooms.
The aangan, or the central courtyard, is the heart of the house. Everybody and everything have to go through it or come out into it. My room is on the east side of the aangan. A veranda separates my door from the aangan floor. The walls of my room and the veranda are about three feet thick.
There is so much space in the units that I can be on my own without anybody knowing. This is a blessing to me. I can sleep, suffer, awaken or dream; nobody knows. I get up early before anyone else. I have my bath and get ready in my freshly laundered sari. The washer-woman leaves one every evening on my bed. I keep them in my metal trunk under my bed. I then take the stairs, rising from the south side of my room to another set of stairs through Vir’s room to the top-floor chaat.
Chaat is open, where I stand, it is highest open area looking down the depths of the building. The sky above is as wide and goes as far as I can see. The crimson dawn changes to gold in moments. I usually get here before this happens. All the family are asleep on the chaat below. I can see down on them in their mosquito nets.
Variations, in hues and brightness, in the sky before my eyes continues until the glow of the sun takes over. There is always a change in the sky even when there are no clouds. The light, the colour, the brightness and the warmth I can feel and see in all shades and its variations. No morning is the same, like a new world every morning. What could be a better start for me? I do not have to travel to arrive. The demise of yesterday and a new life before me to live is a feeling I thrive on in the company of flocks of birds dancing above me from time to time.
When the drama is curtained off my day begins. I walk down to my room and sit on my charpoi, ready and waiting for my glass of tea and a plate of puris. I can tell who will bring my breakfast without opening my door. Mr. Lal always opens the door partially and puts the plate fully inside the room. Hunger wakes me to my existence, extends my life by the day and I eat to live. When the cook is late, my tea comes late. It is futile for me to cook my breakfast; I know a lot of complications will occur, disturbing the status quo. I prefer to wait and remain in my room away from everybody. Hidden out of their way, though, does not mean that I am ignored.
Life goes on outside my room in voices, in the sounds of coughing, in the tinkling of utensils, and thumping on the stairs, loudness they generate early in the morning makes me restless when I am hungry.
Then there is the “tuk-tuk” of the wooden slippers of Mr. Lal. The sound the slippers make hitting the cement floor heralds a confident man in control. He is never in a hurry. I can hear him coming even from a distance. I get time to get out of his way. He is my father-in-law. I must be out of his sight.
“Do-you-hear” is his wife’s name. He calls her as he enters the aangan, from his sitting room. I get the warning. I cover my head with the end of my sari as a veil, as a mark of respect and retreat out of his sight.
There is no offense in this tradition. I would not know how else to react; it is imprinted in my subconscious. It is harmless. I know many women walk in front of and talk to their in-laws openly, but I have never come around to this. It is not important anymore.
Maybe I would not register his presence or care for his words then, as I do now. Our connection does not depend on whether I exist or not, we talk or not. Before my illness and my husband’s death, I would never have thought like this. Now I live in a reality where irrelevance matters.
If it is not him, the road behind my room has much for me to hear. I can tell when a horse- drawn tonga is passing by. Vir, my elder son, used to come in a tonga in his vacations from medical college. I could guess by the trot of the horse when a tonga was passing.
The shoes have their own tapping sound when they hit the road. I could always make out when Nitin’s father was walking. He had a typical cough, and I knew the unique rhythm in the taps of his walking stick.
There is always something happening. Groups of women walking and singing on their way to mandir, a cyclist back from the office (they tinkle their bell continuously), or a seller of vegetables or ice cream passing by and shouting their wares.
It is like living in a jungle, unnoticed and unseen. I can think what I like. I even write my thoughts and feelings in words, in sentences, and sometimes in paragraphs. It is my way of communicating with myself. It clears the clouds in my mind, defining shapes of my thoughts. Unreal ones get dissolved. It is a revelation unto itself.
A shout of “Hari om” follows another on the street. It is loud and clear. Blind, ascetic Soordas is making his way to our front door, I know. He has been coming for years. I can hear his staff hitting the wall behind my room for direction. I have to go.
As I come out of my room and enter the veranda, I can hear he has opened the latch of the front gate. I hear in the aangan his loud “Hari om,” and then he goes quiet. He must have sat down with his staff by his side, as always, waiting. I slip in the store, deep in the south side of the house, I fill a large ladle with wheat flour. I know nobody objects to this act of mine; it is the only act not out of my so-called madness. It is an act of generosity, of daan, which should make the Gods happy, I hope.
Salvation from the Gods or no salvation does not concern me. I identify myself to this blind man. I have always given him alms. He may have his limitations and handicap, but I get the feeling that he may be thinking like me. I certainly feel a connection.
I open the front door. He has spread his cloth on the floor of the front courtyard to get his flour. I empty the ladle full of flour on his cloth.
He senses it. “May God bless you,” he says looking and rolling his eyes towards the sky. “Would you like a drink of water?” I ask.
“No, I am all right.”
I see him folding his cloth and tying a knot to secure his parcel of flour. He stands up and walks out hitting the staff on the ground. He latches the front gate behind him. I close the front door and walk back to my charpoi.
There are many moments when I do not live in my mind and still feel the fulfilment of my existence. One of those moments is being visited by Soordas. It has a catalytic effect. My confidence overwhelms me. I get a feeling of rebirth. I come alive. It makes me feel good.
I know I am not expected to venture like this. It may raise eyebrows. I am disappointed and sometimes disheartened to being careful in whatever I want to do, in order to conform to what I am expected of doing or not doing. What am I supposed to do becomes a unbearable misery.
Doing makes me feel good. I walk out of my room and enter my bathroom at the end of the corridor for a bath. I pour water on my body. I fill another lota and pour more water on top of me. There is such relief in cooling the eyes and cleaning body. It is as if I am getting what I wanted not even by trying for it.
As I settle myself on my charpoi in my room in a clean sarI, the bell of the Shiv Mandir is rung to herald that a devotee has entered the Mandir.
I salute the Shiva from where I am with my hands folded.
The house is big enough to absorb any commotion. The walls are too thick for the voices to ooze outside. One can draw any conclusions they want. I am not the one who is bothered. I cover my head with a blanket and lie in my charpoi in my room. I do not want to get involved in any of it. Then this happens.
I have to wake up with a start.
I can hear the “tuk-tuk” of my father-in-law’s wooden slippers. He has not spoken a word. The “tuk-tuk” has an urgency as its pacing randomness makes me wonder. He has crossed the aangan. He has stepped onto my veranda and at this time of the morning, surprises me. Why? I wonder. I sit up, buttoning my blouse in my bed and I wait.
“Look with your own eyes what she has done,” my mother-in-law is complaining. Her voice is loud. I am suspicious. I tie my petticoat and walk to the closed door. I stand and listen. The “tuk-tuk” is dead. He must be looking at whatever she has asked him to look at. Moments of silence can be eternal to my dismay.
“She has thrown the food all over the floor, making such a mess.”
She continues “Can you not see?”
She is louder now as if he is deaf. “Why can’t she move a bit and return the plate of food if
she does not want to eat?”
This is meant for me to hear and I hear it alright. The sound of ‘tuk-tuk’ now moves and the plate jingles with the metal glass as he collects the utensils lying hay way. The old man is picking up the pieces. Every strike of wooden slippers on the stony floor is deafening. My own room is becoming intolerable. I can feel sweat on my forehead. All feelings of lightness and restfulness have now disappeared. Mysterious are the ways the situation arrives. I have done nothing. I asked for nothing. I must have dozed off. Rana must have left the thali of food at the door.
He did not bother to knock, or I did not hear him.
I ask myself, “Why did I have to oversleep today of all days? The cat must have made the
“Hay Raaa mmm,” is what Mr. Lal keeps repeating. There is remorse in it. There is desperation in his sigh. I can see him bringing the bucket of water and the broom. I dare not close the narrow opening of the door while I see and hear Mr. Lal washing the floor with his own hands. Why can Rana, the servant, not do it? Why must Rana watch and not even offer to help? I want to shout for him. I do not.
“I do not know what crimes I have done to deserve this,” goes on Mr. Lal as if talking to himself. His agony is not an act. He is always cleaning around the house. It is me and my state he feels disappointed in, yet he always protects me and serves me, as if for his own salvation. Why does he not blame me? He never scolds me or questions me.
He goes on washing as if the floor were his sins and all I can do is to be a witness. “This is the result of my crime in my past life.” There is exhaustion in the way he sighs saying this sentence.
Grief can be so offensive. It can be so distasteful. It is downright frightening. Nobody is even making a move, let alone speaking. I open the door. He is all alone. Everybody has gone. There was a time when I did kick the plate of food, but today I did not. Why must I be blamed? I can see tears in his eyes. I want to help him, but there is nothing left to be done.
He has not even noticed I am standing in front of him, unveiled in my blouse and petticoat. I have to shut the door on him.
He repeats, “Hay raaa mm.”
I feel as if the walls of my room are closing in on me. My loneliness and isolation are not unique. Mr. Lal is lonely too. He is not confined to his room or this house, yet he is lonely. He may be feeling isolated. I feel helpless that I cannot help him. He has been good to me. He was the one who came to my room when I had refused to go to the hospital. I had the strength and the determination to push away the massage lady, the cook and my mother-in-law forcing me to go to hospital. Then came Mr. Lal. He was pleading with me.
I know he can threaten and be loud enough to terrorize the servants in the village miles away, but I did not even shiver. He was looking at me disarmed and dejected. He quietly sat down at my feet, my dangling feet, just like today sitting on this very charpoi. He then kneeled slowly, one knee at a time, to the floor. He was touching my feet in pleading. I saw his bald shiny scalp. His face was pink,
and the white, unshaven chin gave an appeal few young men can boast. He bared his white teeth, all of them, in an embarrassing grin.
He said “Devi, please listen to my prayers. Please come to hospital. I will see no harm will
come to you.”
“There is nothing wrong with me. Besides, I am taking my tablets.”
Reflecting now, how convinced I was then of my sanity, yet I did not even bother to feed my little Nitin. I could not care less if he died or lived or who came to look after him. My mother-in-law did stand in for me. She has brought him up.
I have come a long way. My mind now creates thoughts. It churns out dreams. These thoughts make my world around here. This makes me wonder what must be happening outside my limits. Where do we live. Where, and why? How do I survive, I ask myself and why? And what for? It seems to me that what matters is where I am. This house, these walls and people living here who have made me survive and live as I am.
I do not wish to cause more confusion. An apology will alter nothing. It will be brushed aside as an act of madness. I doubt I will ever be able to prove my point, and cats do not speak.
When all gets quiet, I feel confident to venture out of my room. I pick up a freshly laundered Sari and a towel. I walk into the veranda then in the bathroom. I sit on the wooden stool, a bucket full of water before me. I fill a lota with water and pour water over my eyes. I yearn to wash off the cat’s effects on my body. I want to cool down. I pour lota after lota full of water on my body. It runs down my neck and down on to my breasts. I desire to soak in as long as it takes. I fill the lota again and pour water on my body to cool my tummy. Then I wet my legs one at a time. I pour more water on my face slowly, surely and repeatedly until I am tired.
I need this revival. I can feel I am breathing better. I am in control of my body without making any effort. I have come alive once again. The past has been washed off in the gurgling of the water down the drain. I am prepared for the day as it comes.
I have not written my diary since I arrived. When I want to write, I am not up to it. Involvement occupies me. I miss living with my thoughts in my own time; I do not have to make an effort, thoughts are spontaneous. This is not happening to me. I feel unsettled in this emptiness. I do not seem to be able to get into gear. To make an effort is pointless.
How rewarding it was when I did write. Confusion does not materialized in words. That is what gives the confidence and clears the clouds of confusion. The exercise in writing passes the time and makes me feel alive. It is like meditation.
I do not recall why I was ever worried about missing anything. The revival of my urge to paint came to me, only when I got the birthday card. Revelations do not come anymore. Being trapped never occurred to me.
It is as if I had to wait for my time. What if my time did not come? There must be people for whom things do not change. I was not sad before, so I must not be sad now. I survived because I had so much support.
I had to go through unknowingly whatever was happening to me or around me for a revelation. I was not even looking for any of it consciously. This journey of arrival gives me a great sense of friendship with fate. Travelling to England has been one, I am glad of.
Missing the support of Lals, Rana and the cook is sometimes gives me a sense of desperation. They stood by me, and I took it for granted. I am glad I am out of that comfort zone. Now I am here. They are there. Everything has fallen into place without even trying.
Sometimes I feel I have cheated on others; I have used them. They, perhaps do not have an idea about it. What can I do and what should I do, is where I miss the Mandir bells. I need the God. I want guidance.
When Vir told me we were going to a party, it did not excite me. I did not feel like saying, “No.”
I felt it must be a means for new openings. I have to extend myself. I do not want to deny it to myself.
So, I am here, in a large room, among a lot of people. I have seen none of them before. I know no one around. Vir has left me to join a group near me, standing with glasses in their hands.
There are ladies standing behind me and talking among themselves. The one sitting on the sofa by herself beside me, was looking at me with her big eyes and a smile when I entered the room before sitting down. She has not turned to look at me. She still has her coat on. It is a leather coat. Her hands are in her pockets and pressing in as if she is cold. Her legs are stretched out. She appears to be looking at someone or for someone.
More people have joined. The groups have dissolved. I do not see Vir around. People standing close to each other have almost formed a curtain to see across.
The light in the room is interesting. The ceiling is brightest. The movements of the disorganized crowd have blocked the brightness leaving me in darkness.
I see a mahogany cabinet standing beside the wall near me. There is light behind the glass doors of the cabinet. The crystal glasses are visible. At one end of the cabinet sits a table. The table has many bottles on it. The lamp beside it is lighting up the colour of the contents. There is red. There is gold, pale yellow. There is green, too. There are brown bottles.
I am amused at the shapes, negative and positive, almost being played by the light, as the bottles are emptied and moved. Liquid, glass, and colour are dancing to the twine of the light before me. I am occupied in my isolation, in watching an interesting scene. To my eyes, it is, what music is to ears. I see a subject here for my watercolour. I am delighted.
Vir comes and gives me a drink. I taste it. An orange juice. He disappears as he came, unnoticed and swish.
I get distracted hearing a question. “Who is he?”
“My son, Vir,” I reply to the girl in the leather coat in Hindi.
“I am Sue. Nice to meet you.” She gives me her hand. We shake hands.
I can hear ladies behind me talking in Hindustani. People are just as you see them in India. Saris, the children, and the men, their way of laughing and manner of talking makes me wonder if I am really in England.
“Where do you come from?” I ask “I am not Indian. I live here.”
She removes her coat. Her blouse is tight-fitting. Her skirt is about knee length. I am looking at her. To me, she could be an Indian, but I see that I am mistaken. She stands up. She is a good height and has a good figure. Her face is sweet yet has a harsh look.
“Would you like a drink?” she asks me confidently. We talk as if isolated in the room. She could not possibly have put this question to anybody else.
“Say, yes, please,” she tells me like Vir reminding me. “Yes, please.”
Sue walks a good walk on her long legs. She goes to the table and pours drinks. She gives me
a glass, then rearranges her coat on the sofa. She is settled with her drink. “Do you come from India?” “Yes,” I reply.
“I have been to India. I do not like it. It is very dirty.” I have nothing to say, and she looks so
relaxed with her glass.
Vir hands me a plate. “Try some nice kebabs,” he tells me and moves away. I hand over the plate to Sue. She withdraws. “What is that?”
“Kebab,” I tell her.
“Is it hot? I do not like hot food”. I taste one. “It is not hot.”
“I will try one then, thanks.” She takes a bite and looks as if she is not sure.
“Oooo!” She makes a sound and drinks her glass up. “I must be going.” She puts on her coat.
I see her no more. She is gone.
In the room, the legs, the hips, and the waists have sat down.
The hum of the earlier evening has reduced. I can see the full width of the heavy curtain on the opposite wall. There is concealed lighting behind the pelmets as Vir has in his house. People have started to sit, some sitting at the dining table, nearer to the right side of the curtain. I can see, under the table lamp, the colour of the carpet is red. Elsewhere, red has turned brown to a dark grey, depending on the light. The chandelier bulbs are very dimly lit. There is no brightness underneath them.
Vir comes and sits on the carpet near me. He has two plates of food. I take one from him. I get down from my chair and sit on the carpet with Vir and his friends, our plates in front of us. There is less talk; eyes are down on the plates of food.
I take a bite of seekh kebab. I tear a piece of nan and put it in my mouth. Instinctively, eating by hand relaxes me. I feel at home when I see that everybody is also using their hands. I can see Vir using only a fork.
“May I join you?” A small polite man with a smile, dressed in a half-sleeved white shirt, sits down to join our circle on the carpet. He puts his plate of food in front of him.
“You are the king. The pleasure is ours,” someone says. He starts to eat like a hungry man,
using his hands.
“Raja Saheb has two Mercedes,” someone says, without telling us about whom he is referring
We continue eating wondering, concentrating on our plates. The taste, the variety does not let the comment divert our priority.
The man who has thrown the remark glows with tease. He is chewing his food. He then swallows it. From habit, he continues to move his lips and tongue as if chewing before he spoons his next mouthful. Delicious dal keeps me focused. I do not want to find out, whatever talk is going on.
“You have a Mercedes, too,” the small man tells him.
“Well, mine is old.” When he says this, he looks as if food is his only refuge. I cannot blame
him; the meat is tender and delicious.
I finish my pickle and would love to have more. I ask Vir, “Can you get me another pickle?”
Vir moves away to get some.
“Mrs. Lal, do you have a car?” I am asked. “No.”
“You see, I drive a Cortina. I cannot tell you how essential a car is. How can you possibly live without a car?”
The talk is general and the opinion aired is not my concern. I am glad Nitin is not here. I do not want him to agree with this man. I hope Vir is not inconvenienced without a car at home.
“I could not live in India. I have been offered good jobs, but I could not possibly go back.”
I very much doubt Vir thinks like this. I now feel I do not want any more pickle. I should not have troubled Vir. I must not take him for granted.
“Then, I had a child,” the same man goes on after swallowing. “What education is there? What are his prospects?” He is asking a general question.
“I was educated in India, and the prospects are as good as anywhere.” Vir speaks for the first
time. He has sweat on his forehead like his father.
What a relief to hear Vir. If Vir felt what the man is implying, then we had been failing to do our best for him all this time. His father will feel hurt in heaven. I know how much interest, dedication, and sacrifice Vir’s father made. There were times when I thought it was all a waste.
“Even better I would say,” a little boy sitting nearby adds to what Vir has said. “What do you know?” his father protests.
“Do not be silly, Daddy. I go to school, I know.” “It is for you that I am here.”
“Then, do not be. Let us go to India.”
The man goes to get a sweet and never returns. The boy goes with him, too. The sweet is rasmalai.
“Very tasty,” I tell Vir.
The boy sits in front of the television and switches it on. The ten o’clock news is playing.
I start to think about Nitin. I have not written to him for some time. I hope he is getting good food in his hostel. What is special about an education? The desire to hold Nitin in my arms is very strong. I do not want to get my poison into him. Oh, God, give him strength.
The music has been on all evening. I can hear it better now. It is clearer. I find it soothing. It is relieving. It is what I need. There are no lyrics. It is a dhun. I do not want any lyrics just now. Words I do not want to hear. It seems that the party is breaking up, and I am thirsty.
“You are Vir’s mother. Welcome.” I fold my hands in namastey to the lady.
“It is very nice that you could come.”
The man beside her adds, “You cook very tasty food.” “Oh, thank you.”
“You are here for some time?” the man asks me and moves to shake hands with someone
The lady holds me and says, “We are coming to see you soon.” Then she introduces, “This is my daughter, Sushma,”
Before I know what to say the mother moves away to join her husband.
“Vir, I want a glass of water,” I say.
“We do not drink water here,” Sushma tells me. “Have some champagne. I will go get some.”
She goes to fetch a glass.
“Have a try. Go on,” Vir encourages me. I drink it like water. Vir has a laugh. “What is a Mercedes?” I ask Vir in the car on our way to home.
“You know, the car my friend came to receive us in at the airport?” “The doctor who committed suicide?”
I do not remember seeing it as anything more than just a car.
“That car,” Vir tells me, as he pulls into the main road pointing at a passing car.
I have nothing further to ask. Vir tells me. “His wife is taking it to India. She will sell it at a high
price and make a huge profit.”
I look at Vir, and he appears a stranger. We both are. What we know of each other is perhaps nothing. Yet, we are what we are, together, hanging by the unseen thread of genes and only genes.
I wonder if Vir is working day and night to buy a Mercedes. He was ill the other day. It was very cold and rainy, yet he was working at night.
“I have to pay the mortgage,” he explained.
What do I know? What do I say? Quietness in the car makes me hear the swish of the tyres on the tarmac as we cruise on the lonely road.
“Have you gone to sleep? We are not far.”
I do not reply. I now see the post box and the telephone booth where the car turns left, and I know we are near the home. The car turns left in the drive.
“What a clear night. It is cold,” Vir comments. “Look, there is a full moon.”
I look at the moon. Vir unlocks the door. He goes upstairs to his room.