AN INTRODUCTION BY EMMA EISENBERG
How do we escape what keeps us unfree? Our sex, for example, or our gender. “You find out where gender is,” writes Kate Bornstein, author of Gender Outlaw, “and then you go somewhere else.”
The titular narrator of Chaya Bhuvanswar’s “Jagatishwaran” — Jagat, for short — is unfree. He’s constricted by his time and his place and his family and his mind; he is suffering some unnamed mental illness, or those around him believe he is. But he does not die or leave or scream, nor does he submit. He paints and writes and smokes after everyone else has gone to bed, and listens to a secret radio and reads imported copies of The Herald Tribune. In sum, he goes somewhere else. Jagat’s world is muffled, it is low, it is in the corner, he tells us, “I swallow the different tastes in my mouth, remembering the salt hoarded in my room from the kitchen in newspaper packets.” Jagat uses four wood screens to literally shield his body from the garden and from the eyes of the family, particularly the father, who doesn’t understand why he can’t just man up, buck up, get a job, get a car, marry some woman. Nothing huge comes to a head for Jagat, that’s the very point — he’s just trying to go on without giving in. The central question and experience of this story is the extent to which Jagat’s strategy of going somewhere else preserves his true self over the course of a lifetime that does not belong to him.
Bornstein also has a lovely term — “splattering” — which she uses to name the feeling that floods us when two of our contradictory identities or ways of being in the world come up against each other in a single moment. In “Jagatishwaran,” we follow the lead up to and the aftermath of the departure of the narrator’s sister’s from the home; we see all of the ways that her leaving shifts the family system. Jagat’s secret inner world is suddenly pressed up against the outer world, and we watch him splatter. His niece and his sister exist in a world where tenderness and glasses and books are available, a world only available to women, it seems, and we watch his longing to live there. As he searches for peace in the exterior world, one that constantly criticizes him, he finds little ways and places to feel at home in his body, to enjoy the physicality of living — the tranquility of his small room, the food and taxis of his city. The only place he can be his whole self is where he is alone. Bhuvaneswar invites us to know that, and also to watch the splattering, which might become its own beautiful world.
– Emma Eisenberg
The Third Rainbow Girl
The Body is Not a Natural Home
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
In the back of the house there is a corner room that does not open onto the lush and well-tended garden. Its shutters are eyelids opening and closing with the wind. Light comes in small beams from the courtyard where pots are being washed. A woman is sweeping dirty water away from the steps outside the window. At a certain spot behind the empty teak wardrobe that barricades the door, all noises from the courtyard and the kitchen it adjoins are muffled by thick wood. Crouching there, it is not possible to hear the women shouting at each other, mistress to servant and back again, scolding and fretting, cramming the small house full of nervous life.
Flat on my stomach, facing the wall, I can look at my paintings. They are vivid miniatures, set low, near the molding. Their tiny faces sport green Kathakali dancing masks, leering with painted lips and yellow hair like aging American starlets, their glossy eyes faded. My paints have dried in large, expensive tubes littered on the floor, strewn in the dust along with tiny sable brushes that were once a woman’s accessories. The mirror on the wall is British, cracked and decadent looking with too many faded gilt curlicues around it. Amid old newspapers and combs black with hair dye, I keep my shaving kit, and my traveling case. The mirror, like the room, is dark. When I look into it I see the sweat on my forehead and chin and wonder how it remains in the air-conditioned coolness.
I shelter myself from the house with second-hand screens, four of them, made of wood that looks better for the dust on it, less costly and more secure. I write after the others have gone to bed, hiding my diaries and papers during daylight hours. Sometimes their faces flash by me in the darkness, as if they were peering in rudely through a space between the screens. Only the visitors are overcome by curiosity; the niece from the States who looks at me with her little cat face, jeans curving around soft hips; my sister the doctor, talking about leper colonies at tea, bringing medicine and the toasters when she comes, making the house smell of Ben-Gay and bread. Even the trees in the garden move away from the house, as if in disgust. The living room is brightly lit behind embroidered cotton drapes. On each evening of her stay, from behind the screens, crouching. I hear the news on television and listen to loud, excited voices talking above it, nearly drowning it out. The niece is always quiet when her mother and my father shout about corruption and bribery or point to picket signs and angry crowds when they appear on the old-fashioned screen.
No one in this house knows that I listen to a radio hidden in my room, and that I read imported copies of The Herald Tribune. Or that I spend the money given to me by Father on tobacco, and go to the same place almost every afternoon with my pockets bulging. Nixon, Watergate — my sister doesn’t know how much I know, how much I hold fast in my memory from those times. Imprisonment, Emergency. Who wouldn’t have been paranoid then? But it’s my sister who’s the smart one, the doctor lady. She thinks of us as dull-witted rice-eaters, waiting for her borrowed, Anglo china plates and blue jeans, silk ties and pantyhose, perfume in fish shaped bottles, white linen napkins and forks — so we won’t eat with our hands — expensive bolts of brilliant cloth,smelling slightly of glue, precious… “The exchange rate is wonderful,” my sister remarks, at least with the grace to laugh uneasily. Once she brought paints on a visit — “Padma picked them out specially,” she explained, handing over a shiny gift-wrapped box. Padma’s gift. They are beautiful and useless now. Exotic.
I don’t voice my opinions anymore because I know they only pretend to listen, looking at me as if I still ranted and raged as I did in the early days of my illness. Break down. Maybe schizophrenia, all his ranting…I can hear them whispering, concerned. The cleaning woman who goes everywhere, poking into wardrobes for silk pieces and loose change, cleans carefully around my teak screens, never daring to touch anything behind them. On trips to the kitchen to fill my coffee mug, I watch her slowly moving and she peers at me, afraid. That’s what the barricade is there for.
From behind the screens I can smell food from the kitchen, the smell cleaving to the carpets, damp, stronger than the scent of leaves and sweat from the courtyard. The old man calls me “demon” when he sees me eating, muttering as if I were still a young child and he were bending over my pillow promising candies in my ear. I am his youngest son; years and years ago he called me “eyes” in Tamil, which meant I was the dearest. Then in school I didn’t turn out like his nine good children, neither physicist nor lawyer, neither doctor nor engineer. I got sick, I remind him often, just before my college exams. I got very ill, it was terrible. First tuberculosis, then something else, something in my head. I was in pain, for pity’s sake. It became too late, impossible to work. To do anything but sit or stand very quietly, in peace, left to myself. I’ve tried to explain. “But you’re a grown man now,” Father says in disbelief, “and that was years ago.” He talks about my hair and the sweat on my face, jabbing at my clothes, fuming, gesticulating, until my mother stands between us, the veins bulging in her frail hand on his arm.
Mother used to come at night, years ago, before I put up the screens, to ask how I was, but now she’s afraid. Once I pushed him hard, not her, never her, and I felt disgust at his shriveled skin, his nasal voice, always skeptical, his tiny well-read eyes like an elephant’s, nearly blind but remembering everything.
On some evenings when the house is empty my father and I sit in the library pretending to read, not looking at each other, crickets caught between the pages of old books, gray moths appearing from the bare bulb on the ceiling as if by spontaneous generation. He taps his cane as he turns the pages, licking his soft, wrinkled thumb as he lifts the corners like a toady hidden in reams of office paper, calculating newborn deaths and taking bribes. I stare at him first if he’s been bothering me that day. “Have you taken your medicine?” he asks in English. Patrician, concerned, I am silent. In the dim light he can see the outline of my face, my bones almost his bones, my hands threatening. “Don’t hit me,” he says, as a warning, though I never do, and he knows it. It has become an evening ritual, more honest than prayer.
When my sister comes in the summers there are annual rituals — special prayers, more sweets, more garlands lying on the puja-room floor or hung in glossy pictures of the gods. She calls for the barber to come in the evening. He does his work squatting on the steps leading out toward the blue main gate of the house, never coming in the house. He squints up at the dimming sunlight and tells my sister’s son to hold still — he uses scissors and a gleaming old fashioned razor. The little boy shakes his head no, rubs his soft, protruding belly and laughs. Once I watched from the doorway, making him laugh even harder by imitating the girlish, feline sounds of his voice, until my sister stood in front of me and edged the door nearly closed. “Leave him alone, he’ll get himself cut,” she muttered quietly, not looking up at my face. I stared at her as she turned away, aware of the fresh smell of her hair and clothes. “Why don’t you take a bath,” she advised, watching the boy, her shoulders tensed until I moved out of sight.
The large book cases in the corridor between my room and the puja-room are opened in the summers for my sister’s daughter. Her back pressed against the wall, eyes fish-flat behind thick glasses, she reads old books, like Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyyat, in the failing light. “Conserve your eyes,” my father says when he passes on his way to prayer, rapping on her glasses with a finger. He adds with an old woman glimmer in his voice, “Near-sightedness is a reading disease.” She puts the book down, covers her face with her palms for a moment and laughs, as if pretending to put her eyes away.
When she was younger, she asked me all kinds of questions about Indian politics, Shakespeare, the price of sandalwood soap in villages, why I had painted on the walls. She would nod calmly at the answers and say little. She would lean against the door of my room near the book cases, staring like a pretty cat with blue-black eyes and secret thoughts. “Don’t bother Jagat Mama,” my mother began to say, when the girl grew older, and she nodded as if she understood. “Leave Padma alone,” my father said once, stopping me on my way out from taking salt from the kitchen. Now with her large feet in new American tennis shoes, with her hidden breasts and her delicate neck, she only glances at me now and then with that same mute questioning look, grown-up ivory jangling at her wrists.
When my sister comes every summer, Father comes out of his room to talk to her. My niece and mother smile and whisper to each other as my sister talks about San Francisco, New York, Santa Fe, the old man repeating the names, drawing them out with his proud camel lips. My sister doesn’t know that I’ve seen the names in books, in the paper. I’ve heard them pronounced properly on my secret radio. They talk about the days she has left in India, counting up the brief nights and muddy afternoons watched from the window of the genteel Ambassador car, traffic stopped for thin men driving even thinner cows across the road and being photographed by the niece’s new expensive camera. I listen to them without hearing words, staring from behind my book at the faces. I am quiet in my dusty chair, sitting away from the soft light that hangs over the center of the room. Crickets chirp near my ear on the window, the light bounces off the limbs of a black dancing Shiva that has been placed on top of the television set. I watch their faces as they think about the tiny airport, old man and woman pressed against a large window with other damp cotton cloth-wrapped bodies, looking out at the plane with tiny windows about to take off. Men in white, Western style uniforms will dot the runway, red English and Hindi letters juxtaposed on glossy machine white wings. Before leaving the house they will pray, jeans and mustard seeds packed, my niece and sister looking awkward in new saris. They will mix languages in a sad babble of exclaiming. When my parents cry they look like blind newborns, skulls soft and nearly bald, features melting so that the sharp creases of age grow mild and nearly invisible.
In the early afternoons, after lunch has been cleared away, I sit in the dark room near the door, listening to the servant wash pots outside; my travel kit propped on my knees. The women sleep lightly in a cool room, the door closed, the light soft on their thick eyelashes. I close my eyes, waiting, wondering if the old man is too tired to watch me. He asks me questions like a child. “Where are you going? Where do you go in the afternoons?” When he has not eaten well he demands, “Why don’t you go get a job, demon, if you feel strong enough to go out every day?” He combs back his few strands of white hair, crackling them with static and impatience.
He follows me to the main road only on dry afternoons. I sense the gate swinging open again behind me. I hear my father softly complaining to stray dogs. “That man shoveling dirt over dead bodies is better than you,” he said once, when he saw me stop to look at a young man with dirt on his teeth. “He’s working at an honest job.” I made no answer, walking on as if he were a beggar I heard whimpering in the street. My father continued. “He isn’t draining the life out of his parents.” I took longer strides that day, aware that my breathing was strained, aware of the wind pressing against my back.
In the afternoons, I lose him easily in the crowd, when we get to the rikshaw stand where drivers are always waiting. He follows me only to demonstrate that he can, I suppose. The effort of the gesture is enough. He turns back without running after me, wiping his high forehead with a white handkerchief my mother ironed herself, and slowly starts the walk home. Chewing paan and leaning on his auto-rikshaw, the driver watches the old man as I climb into the back. The driver is a young boy who comes to the big house in his rikshaw on some evenings, waiting by the blue gate to take my sister and niece to the bazaar. He notices the flowers in my niece’s hair, glancing down at her soft brown fingers gripping the bar against his warm back before asking where to go.
The driver doesn’t need to ask where I am going. Like all auto drivers he is careless, even dangerously fast. I can barely see the road from the tear in the plastic sheet that serves as a door. I grip the metal bars tightly, knuckles showing white, tasting the potatoes and rice I ate before I left. I am thrown forward when the driver stops for a person or an animal. I swallow the different tastes in my mouth, remembering the salt hoarded in my room from the kitchen in newspaper packets. I imagine the peppermint taste of the crushed medicine my sister bought for me this time, which my mother will soon start mixing in the salt. When I fell ill again last year, Father cried on the phone to my sister long distance. No doubt the connection took hours to get, with long silences and wrong houses woken up somewhere in the middle of the night by a sudden ceaseless ringing. After the phone rang in the right house, darkness here and light there, Mother excited and barely whispering, “It has come, it has come,” in girlish Tamil — I could hear my sister loud and soothing, yelling calm assurances through the static.
The women stand in the doorway as the rikshaw pulls up, watching for me and tittering slightly. They’ve never asked my name, but they know who I am. I wear dirty orange kurtas like scarves around my neck and knotted around my waist so they will set me apart from other men. They speak to me in more measured voices. I pay them well with Father’s money. They don’t smoke cigarettes in my presence, though they accept the tobacco I bring for them with gentle smiles and nods, hiding their eyes. I have seen each one of them with mouths wiped clean of paint, hair loose and smelling of hibiscus, laughing at their children and stroking black kajal on their babies’ eyelids. My face is dry when I lie on their cotton sheets, gather up the hems of their thin embroidered saris in my hands. The sweat disappears from my chin and my cheekbones, though the rooms here are warm and the breeze is barely stirred by low ceiling fans.
At times I stay past the late evening, missing dinner at home but not needing to eat. I stay for the morning, sensing the presence of women waking and stretching their smooth, bare arms in flats above and below me, hearing children fighting downstairs as if they whispered in my ear, and the dogs from the street below as if from a great distance away. I hear bangles jingling from downstairs where sugar in coffee is burning, the smell stronger passing from the downstairs windows to where I stand on the sturdy balcony, waiting for the night to pass into morning, listening to the woman in the room behind me as she unwinds the sari from her slender hips.
The balcony is made of slate gray concrete that, where chipped away, looks like the softened surface of stone dancers in northern temples, with faces torn away by harsh, factory polluted wind. There is a thin black railing that stretches out in a winding pattern of water snakes around the balcony, with the thick slabs of concrete rising up from the base like graceless fingers pointing up much higher than a small child’s head. I have seen the children often play up here; I have heard their laughter as I stood waiting. There are spaces between the thick slats for their small brown faces to look out.
At night most people in Bombay and all the big city-villages far from here throw dinner parties, and use their balconies to hear moonlit fake American music with evening-gowned, light-skinned ladies beside them. Here the smells below the balcony predominate: corn cooking in street fires, pigs nudging garbage, incense burning in a window, cows leaving holy excrement for fuel, autos letting off fumes while drivers gossip, smoke and count money. But there is nothing at all to see on the urchin-abandoned street until just before the sun rises.
The paint on the railing is chipped away in places, showing metal that glows underneath in the dark like sudden fireflies. The rest of the railing is slowly revealed by the dim progress of morning, until the full, unblanching sunlight hits it, is seized by it, and is made burning black. But there is no hint of that when the early morning buses approach the street empty, pausing until the motor scooters have passed and the factory workers have disappeared inside, five to a bus seat and some hanging on the railing above, peering through small windows. Their faces can barely be seen from the balcony, but when they smile their betel-stained teeth gleam.
For an hour between the departure of the buses and the appearance of wobbling rice-flour faces and flower design on the ground of the balcony, new smells of clarified butter and talcum powder twist out from the room inside, lingering after those smells have been replaced by cooking green beans, tiny pickled mangoes, and saffron-flavored rice. A woman’s acrid sweat tinges the stone as the seven o’clock sun approaches. I avoid her eyes as she moves about next to me, hiding my eyes with a hand, staring down at the loud crows beating their wet wings below to drive the garden awake.
There is a child’s school uniform draped over the side of the railing which never dries completely. Several small pictures have been inserted in the slates of the balcony; the expectant face of the goddess of learning, a bubble-gum wrapper full of salt, and a much-handled picture of an erotic couple on the porch of the Temple of the Sun torn from a tourist magazine. At times, I finger a worn Vishnu prayer book with doodles that blind the serpent upon which the god is resting. I picture the old man praying under his breath at the tea table. The balcony is an unsmiling witness, uncritical save for an occasional blast of wind or smog that it harbors which ruffles my hair suddenly.
And the trees outside the balcony, not whispering like pines in a Canadian forest, not readying themselves to scatter and blush like New England trees after the first spring respite from the cold? There may be trees like that in white winter resorts at hill stations, modelled after slick postcards, but here the trees are lush and solitary. There is one great and rustling tree, tropical, green, shimmering and wild, never cut back from the balcony so that on certain nights it sweeps drying cloths with branches like fingers gesturing and rolling a cigarette. “Isn’t that a banyan? Or perhaps a neem?” I imagine an American accented voice saying, pointing at it, as young hippies stand on the balcony and marvel at the rustic charm of the street. A washerwoman stricken with typhoid in some rainy night has been seen crouching down next to the trunk outside the main gate, looking up warily at the balcony and the people.
I know there will be no dinner parties here, and music that issues from the room opening onto the balcony — a woman singing in Hindi about a god being mistaken for a deer — is often quickly and abruptly ended. But there will be moonlight. Peace in the leaves of the tree and the awkward protective slats of the balcony after screaming fights about men, the price of school books, the length of a child’s new frock and the rust on the body of a new black bicycle. Its wheels are closely entwined with the circle designs of the black railing of the balcony. Leaning forward in my seat, I remember my father named me Jagatishwaran, “lord of worlds”, holding me aloft.
In the darkness approaching I look at the ground, peering down through the slats, seeking out the sudden fireflies, the lighted tiny lamps in the windows, roadside meal-fires in the street. But there is nothing to look at in the twilight except the feeling of night itself in the slammed doors and fading child-shouts on the street below. The promise of moonlight contains the promise of the burned incense and rice-flour tracings that I will see there again in the morning, after the view and the objects of the street calmly and fatalistically appear.
One evening when I return to the house it is the end of the rainy season, nearly time for my sister, who is so adept at comforting, to leave here for her American city. They have all gone to the market again. A pink carnation has budded, tender, in the box of green placed outside the front door. I crush a few petals underneath my tongue, wondering why they are not sweet, sucking them like candy, resisting the dank smell that permeates the unlit rooms. Even the maid servant has finished for the day. She will return in the morning to clean pots and thalis piled high in the stone sink in the courtyard, excavating soap and dishrags as if they were moist treasures.
I sense dust on the covers of old books in the corridor, their pages crumbling — a good wind would blow away the words, the fine English print. I wonder if the old man would even mind that only husks were left if every one of their pages were gone. I run a hand along the old curved spines lined in neat rows before opening my door.
It’s darker here than in the rest of the house, though there is a small kerosene lamp burning. “You’ll set a fire,” the old man always says to me. “Use the good American fluorescents.” I can see my niece’s hair gleaming in the light, near my paintings, her head bent forward. She sits cross-legged on the floor, old books lying open all around her. Her back is to the door, her wide shoulders relaxed. The room smells of turpentine. “Near-sightedness is a reading disease,” I say, in my best grandfather voice.
She turns quickly, her eyes solemn, hiding something in her hand. The dust makes her cough. She smiles when she recovers herself. “Look,” she says, opening her hand. I look away from her, afraid. There are pictures of stone Cholas maidens in a few books left carelessly open, revealing contemplative moon-faces, wide hips and shoulders, girl-breasts, gray and perfect in relief. “Please look,” she says again. I see the brushes in her hand. There are caps on the clean tubes of paint now, a water jar on my dreams, a tiny palette made of wood. “It’s carved,” she says, smiling. There are drop cloths on the ground, as if my work could begin at any moment. She is silent, drying off the last delicate brush with her long fingers. “Why?” I ask, not exactly unkind.
“They are gifts from me,” she says. The teak screens are closer together than before, as if they have been gently moved aside and then carefully eased back into place, order preserved. She drops the last brush into a child’s pencil box on the floor, probably her brother’s. The paintings are brighter in the lamplight, the smiles on the mask still lewd and masculine. The wall above them is blank, expectant like Padma’s face. “Please get out,” I tell her. She takes off her thick glasses and wipes the sweat from the bridge of her nose. Her eyes are distant, as if she were listening to crows settling on the roof for a moment.
“Have you seen this?” she asks, holding up a book and pointing. A woman smiles in black and white, her hips exaggerated, legs strong, arms bent with hands pointing upwards, fingers curled. We stare for a few moments, meditating. “I know all the hand gestures mean something,” Padma says, her voice soft. She adds excitedly, “Some of the dancers in this photo are wearing Kathak masks like the ones in your mural.” I look away from her at the dresser, at combs and open bottles of hair dye and smile furtively. The book in her hand was once before in this room, on that dresser, open to the picture of a woman balanced on a tiny demon’s back, vanquishing greed with her graceful stomping feet. I had made marks on the pictures of the dancers. In a notebook hidden under the bed there are line-drawings of masks, of temple-dancers — all useless, exotic and beautiful.
She stands up, the book still in her hand. I gather the others, shutting away the orange colored abstract Ganeshas, Rajput miniatures with black staring beetle eyes, Nataraja dancing on the top of a temple, trapping gaudy life between the fading covers of old books. She takes them from me, brushing my hands with her smooth child fingers. Her hair has come undone from the effort of the afternoon; suddenly I feel ashamed. I promise to work on my paintings again, and her eyes open wide with pleasure. When she smiles like my mother I look down, unable to thank her. “You know, I may be in love,” she blurts out, pausing at the door and balancing books on her hip, trembling slightly. “Uncle, please don’t tell.” She disappears behind the screens. In the dark somewhere the town is closing, and my sister will come soon.
In the morning, I watch my niece, waiting for clues. She is quiet as usual, setting off on long walks when the women are bathing or asleep, or hiding by herself in the garden, reading secret letters. “When she was small she was afraid of snakes,” my mother says fondly, waiting for the vegetable seller with his cart and watching Padma move a chair behind the trees. My father retreats to a back room with a book, preparing for abandonment as my sister packs and talks to her husband on the phone. She does her packing everywhere as usual, suitcases open on the floor and in the landings, saris and scarves mingled in radiant profusion, lists made on crumpled envelopes and pieces of newspaper. Sometimes Padma swings on the gate with young children or waits while they play, serene and maternal. “Only one more trip to the market,” my sister promises, when she sees Padma waiting at the gate for the auto-rikshaw. When he finally arrives, her smile is pure and flushed, the twilight settling on her neck. Her mother waits in the rikshaw as Padma slowly gathers up her full skirt using both hands. “Don’t forget to lock the front door,” my sister tells me, and I nod, dutiful. Padma’s hair is loose and long enough to fall in front of the cold metal pole that separates the driver from his passengers, her black curls helpless, streaming down as the rikshaw jerks forward. Strands of Padma’s hair are crushed between the pole and the driver’s back, tickling his bare skin through the white cotton shirt. “You’re imagining things,” my sister would say, if I described it. Her voice would be angry. On trips from the square with the driver I say nothing, watching him in the rear-view mirror until he turns once, his eyes full of laughter, stopping for an old woman who’s wading with difficulty between animals and bikes. He is young, I realize, like my niece. We wait. “My name is Ramdas,” he whispers in Hindi, like the medieval bard by the same name. Then he looks ahead again, lurching forward quickly before anyone can cut him off, because the old woman is safe now, after all. He resumes hurtling onto my usual, my only, destination.
Months later, standing on the balcony in the early afternoon while there is still light, I read Padma’s letter. It is the first time she has written to me since she was young, when she held onto the gate like a child, waiting only for her mother. The letter is new but is already faded, crumpled, sent by air-mail on cheap blue aerogram with wispy ballpoint pen handwriting like mine. “Uncle,” she wrote, after some grown-up pleasantries. “I thought of you when Ramdas told this to me.”
‘Wild-eyed, blacker in your brows than crow-black nights, your legs are twisted into heavy branches, rivers fallen in your tangled hair. You take me up into the dance, your arms taut with the tiger-tooth bracelets. I was silk-clad and pale in the incense-burning light. Bells and gongs clamoring, emptying my mind of fear, I forgot that you had burned the body of the god of love when he teased you with his beauty.’
A man puts washed clothes on the balcony, nodding politely, cutting the cloudless sky into dark, wet shapes. A bottle-green sari mingles sinuously with the shining body of black lattice. The dark green is flecked with gold crisscrosses and flanked by deep yellow borders of crushed silk ending in tangled threads. It is faded with many washings, a pleasure gift when there was no chiffon to turn the eye away from grandmother cloth. I put my face up against it, as if smelling my mother.
Days after waiting on the balcony, I stay at home, away from the women. It is the day my niece Padma has been scheduled to leave. There is no time for argument or recrimination — every member of the household strains in silence under heavy suitcases, loading two taxis. The taxi-drivers are fed, given tea, made to engage in small talk and polite price-negotiation. Sweating, I look in my room and see that the paints are just where Padma has left them. I wipe my face with a damp cloth, staring at the mirror and feeling impatient. To go to the airport, I will have to bathe. My face is dry in the bathroom mirror, even with steam rising from the walls. Turning from her post beside the window, Padma smiles when she sees that my hair is washed and combed. There is a red tear-drop in the center of her forehead. Her hair is bound in rose and daisy petals like a bride’s.
Padma’s hands are soft, pressed together. She prostrates herself before the old man, then the old woman, her mother looking on. They touch her smooth hair with approving, wrinkled hands. She eludes them by promising to be back in half an hour, walking quickly down the street. Her mother sits on the front steps, saying nothing as Padma’s younger brother plays in the driveway. He giggles, imitating me as I describe the route the taxi-drivers should take with my hands. The old man stands behind my sister, hands resting on her shoulders, little eyes squinting in the light.
In the taxi I sit in front with the driver, next to my father. His elbow is sharp in my side when the driver makes a wrong turn. When we reach the airport early he wilts, no longer angry. He waits before opening the door, trapping me inside the car for a long moment. My mother’s voice is unnaturally bright as she adjusts the back of my shirt collar, her hands shaking a little. “Appa,” my sister says softly, when she helps him out of the car, easily bearing her weight.
The airport is crowded, hot, inefficient. There are nuns everywhere. “Oh, don’t sneer at everyone,” my sister says, her voice matter of fact, before she takes her place in line with Padma. I help the taxi drivers load suitcases onto a cart, which is then wheeled to the tiny airplane and loaded on by men who soon become tiny dots in the distance. I put change in vending machines, buying copies of the Times, bottles of Limca soft drinks. My father, rooted firmly to the earth like some ascetic waiting for a boon, says nothing. He stands in one spot as people push past him impatiently.
Padma and her mother become dots too as the line of passengers moves toward the runway. We wait at the large glass, looking out, old man and woman waving, bodies pressed against tall windows, straining hard to see. Long after Padma and her mother are hidden from view, we stand there and move into ourselves, imagining trays of candy and bright-painted stewardesses, hearing the canned Ravi Shankar music, breathing the sweet, stale pressurized air that must be coursing through the plane at that moment.
Weeks later, in my sanctuary with Padma’s neat letter in my hand, I breathe easily, wondering at the purity of polluted air.
“Ramdas said you were named after Shiva. I miss you. Please write soon, and paint. Your loving niece,” she has written, printing her name at the end in round childish letters. I turn the blue leaf over in my hand, looking at the address of my father’s house…Jagatishwaran, Padma has printed before it, with no last name, only lord of worlds.
A woman stealing up soft behind me, having first turned to the radio in the room below, places her hand on my neck, her lips soft on my cheek. I put Padma’s letter in my pocket, thinking of how I stood in the airport, watching the old man and woman stare out the window as the plane began to move. As we watched it take off I had moved close behind my father, bracing myself against his sobs, my hands steady on his bony shoulders. “Let’s go home,” my mother said, fumbling for a handkerchief. They looked up at me as if they were children, Father’s eyes almost erased by tears. “Please get the taxi, Bhuvan,” he had said, calling me by name.
Now, here on the balcony, I feel bare female arms around my waist, woman-soft while a radio plays a song below. My hands on hers, flat against my stomach, we brace each other gently, waiting for dark to settle on the street.