by Shipra Agarwal
I ask the taxi driver to drop me outside the neighborhood. A Maruti WagonR parked in front of the house will draw too much attention.
“Go have tea or something, but be here in exactly forty-five minutes,” I tell him, as I wrap a brown stole around my shoulders and open the car door. That’s when the odor hits me. Of sweat and sewer. Of coriander seeds and cardamom. Of the bazaar. The familiarity of the smell surprises me. Eleven years isn’t long enough, apparently.
The bazaar is throbbing with its usual cacophony: Scooters screeching beneath jaded men, vegetable sellers trying to out-scream each other, housewives haggling over every half-rupee, rickshaw-pullers cussing at stray dogs that lounge in the middle of the street. For the first sixteen years of my life, I walked past these people every day. Their curious gaze burned a hole in my gut then, just as it does now. If I stared back, they used to put on a sympathetic smile and ask, “All okay at home, Siya?” If I denied eye-contact, they clicked their tongues and shook their heads: “Poor child.”
Today their eyes have naked curiosity, nothing more. No pity. No recognition. The bazaar has forgotten me, at last.
I unlock the black iron gate with the key my father gave me this morning. The house hasn’t changed. Two stories, white-washed walls on which rain has painted dark lines, and a peepal tree that strews leaves all over the concrete courtyard. Fourteen steps across the yard, rickety front door, and I am in the inner courtyard. I shut the door and let out the breath that had been stuck in my chest while I walked. It’s like I’m returning from school.
I look up to catch a glimpse of my old room. A small voice warns me that I don’t have time for detours, that I should just grab the stuff I am here for and leave, that the taxi is waiting. I shush it and climb up the steep staircase, two steps at a time.
It’s a guest room now with a grand double bed occupying most of the floor space. I used to sleep on a single bed covered by a lumpy cotton-stuffed mattress. One leg of that bed was cracked; it made a funny noise when I turned from one side to the other, which was often, especially on those long nights when the cold silence between my parents erupted in bitter quarrels. Their bedroom was directly below this room and I could hear every word, every sob, every threat in the quiet of the night. Their fights were, quite consistently, born out of the same womb: Dadda’s affair with that woman, as my grandma used to call her. It was scary at first, hearing my parents hiss at each other like that, but when you hear the same fights over and over, they become dull, even amusing—I would try to guess what the other person would say next; it was a little game I had invented to pass those sleepless nights.
I’ve known about Dadda’s affair ever since I first started understanding words, because my mother was incapable of having a conversation without bringing up that woman at least three times. It was an art she had mastered—she could convert any conversation under the sun into a snide remark on Dadda in under four minutes. If it wasn’t for Grandma and her “I don’t want to hear that woman’s name in my house” warning, we wouldn’t have heard the end of it. Mother’s gripes, though, were reserved exclusively for our ears. She magically transformed into a happy, demure wife as soon as a guest knocked on the front door.
Knock-knock. A loud tapping sound makes me step out of my room.
“Hello?” a nasal voice calls from downstairs. “Is someone here?”
There is only one woman with a voice as annoying as this—Tara Aunty. I had underestimated the bazaar—it has been twenty minutes since I got here, and the queen bee of this gossip hive has arrived.
“Namaste, Aunty. It’s me, Siya,” I climb down the stairs. The front door opens and a shriveled, washed down version of what used to be a portly and ferocious woman enters. Is my memory failing me or has she somehow managed to lose height?
“Siyaaa?” she says in a fake-surprised voice. “Is it really you?” I think of six different answers to that question, none that she would like, while I let her squeeze me in a hug, pat my cheeks, and rub my naked arms. “Look at you all grown up!” she says. “Long hair, no glasses, heels…you’ve really changed, eh?”
“Not enough, apparently,” I mutter while I smile at her.
The last time I saw Tara Aunty was when I left Jhansi for college. Her husband had helped Dadda shove my suitcases in the trunk of the taxi, while she had handed me a box of laddoos that my mother had made for me and that I had deliberately left on the coffee table. I gave that box to a beggar at the train station.
“How is everything in Mumbai? It rains a lot there, doesn’t it?” Tara Aunty holds the door with one hand for balance. Her other hand is patting my hair and brushing invisible dust specks off my shoulder. I wonder why she hasn’t asked about my mother yet.
“Yes, yes, it does.”
“I love all the advertisements that you’ve made. Nisha records them and shows them at our kitty-parties.”
Now, that is a scene I never thought I’d imagine: My mother and her coven commenting on Coca-Cola ads while sipping hot tea and munching on potato-stuffed samosas. These were always Mother’s favorites. She made them for every single one of my birthdays, even though I hated samosas.
All my birthday parties were hosted in this courtyard. Dadda and Uncle set a large wooden table against the wall. Grandma baked her special eggless cake, placed it in the center of the table and surrounded it with dishes full of biscuits, wafers, and samosas. Dadda picked me up so I could reach the cake to blow out the candles. Mother handed me a blunt knife, always with the same sharp warning, “Be careful now, Siya, don’t cut your arm.” Everybody sang the birthday song and smiled at me and kissed my cheeks. Grandma fussed over the frills of my frock. She was a bit too fussy about clothes, my grandma. She used to sew my dresses herself, using colorful pieces of cloth from saris that Mother no longer wore or from torn curtains and bedsheets.
On my tenth birthday, however, I was tall enough to reach the cake myself so Dadda didn’t pick me up. Mother passed the knife without her standard warning. Everybody sang the birthday song, but not many people kissed my cheeks. Grandma had fractured her hip while visiting Uncle a few months back, so she couldn’t make it. Her sweater did, but it was too tight for me, and too green. Without her fussing over me, it didn’t seem like my party. Dadda was happy because without Grandma and her strict rules, he could drink and smoke in the house. Mother was in the kitchen, silently sulking for having to cook for everyone. I spent most of the evening sitting in the washroom making flying birds on the floor with the shadow of my fingers. And as soon as Dadda and his friends had had enough drinks to forget about me, I tip-toed back to my room upstairs.
“What are you doing here?” Tara Aunty asks. “Your parents have both gone for that wedding, right? In Delhi?”
Does she really not know?
“Mother is in the hospital, Aunty. She and Dadda met with an accident on their way to Delhi. Dadda has fractured his arm, but he’s fine. Mother is unconscious; she has a concussion.”
This time she looks genuinely surprised. I’m not sure whether it’s the hospitalization of her dear friend that got to her, or a crack in her gossip network, but Tara Aunty has finally run out of questions. She stands still, holding the door with her right hand. Her washed up face next to the swollen, rickety door makes me want to run away.
“I’m here to bring their medical reports, clothes, check books etc. I should get back to it actually…”
Tara Aunty nods, but instead of going away she enters the house, walks to the staircase, sits down on the steps, and starts a fresh bout of questions: How did the accident happen? What are the doctors saying? When will they operate? When will your mother be back in town? And so on. I feel like I’m going through a viva and failing.
“Some luck your mother has, eh?” Tara Aunty shakes her head. “One thing after the other.”
I throw a quick glance at my watch, hoping that she’ll take the hint, but Aunty is in no hurry. She has spread herself on the staircase—slippers on the floor, feet on the first step, hips on the third, and the flowing pallu of her sari sweeping the three steps above that.
“Do you know that I performed all the welcome rituals when Nisha came here after her wedding?” she asks. “Your grandma was down with the flu. And I was the only married woman up at such a late hour. I still remember Nisha’s face—so small, so shy—she wasn’t even eighteen then. Dressed in a red wedding dress and such beautiful gold jewelry! I remember thinking that I have never seen such a beautiful bride.”
Tara Aunty has always had a knack for hyperbole. I have seen my mother’s wedding pictures. Though they were in black and white, they were clear enough to show how awkward both of them were. Mother was stooping under the weight of her heavily embroidered dress. She was small and shy, yes, but beautiful? I won’t call her that.
Aunty turns around and looks at the house behind her. The Sun has started its descent, cue for the swaying branches of the peepal tree to throw their shadows on the house. Both of us watch the dancing shadows in silence. Then, she says, “Sometimes I wonder if I missed a couplet or two while reciting the prayers that night and that’s what has brought your mother such bad luck.”
I look at the thinning hair at the back of Aunty’s head and wonder what she means by bad luck. Is it possible that my mother, the queen of pretension, talked to her about Dadda? Or, did Tara Aunty spend many summer afternoons with her ear pasted to our front door trying to gather some juicy details? Standing there, in my old house, at the foot of the steep staircase, a familiar feeling sneaks up on me—like I’m standing in a crowded room and everybody is staring at me and whispering. Staring and whispering. About the incident.
A month before my tenth birthday, Dadda had gone to check on Grandma at Uncle’s place. I was studying for my history exam in my room. My usual late-night dose of biscuits and chocolates was over, and my stomach’s constant growling was distracting me from last-minute revision. So, I picked up my tiny yellow flashlight, covered myself with a shawl, and came downstairs to hunt for something to eat in the fridge. As I entered the living room, I noticed that the light in my parents’ bedroom was on. A piece of paper was taped to the door. I pulled the paper off and focused my flashlight on it.
Two sentences were scribbled on it in my mother’s slant handwriting. Two sentences in Hindi stating that she alone, and nobody else, was responsible for her death. Her full signature—the one she used for bank transactions—was at the bottom of the note.
I stood fixed to my spot, not breathing, not moving, not thinking anything but the single paralyzing thought that once that door was open, my mother would be dead. For a few moments I contemplated running away. I thought that if I didn’t open the door, I wouldn’t have to know. I wished Dadda or Grandma were there to open it. The thought of them gave me some strength. I started breathing again. Then, I summoned every last bit of courage I had and pushed the door open.
Bam! The door hit the wall loudly.
In the silence that ensued I saw my mother standing on the top of a stool that was kept over a table, holding a rope in her hand. Her face was paler than the old cotton sari she wore. Her long black hair tied in a loose bun looked faded too, somehow. The only color that stood out was the maroon of the round bindi stuck on her forehead, right in the middle of her terrified eyes. For a few seconds both of us stood staring at each other. Slowly, Mother climbed down from the stool, then from the table. I turned away from her and left the room.
I ran up the stairs, entered my room, and shut the door. Only then did the full meaning of what had happened, what could have happened start to sink in. I sat down on the floor. I sat there and I breathed. Mother wanted to kill herself? Why? Dadda and she had been fighting a lot more ever since Grandma moved out, but it was the same old fight. Why now, I wondered, till the first rays of dawn found their way to my room. I had an exam to go to.
In my head, my mother died a thousand times that day; a thousand times I cried for her. I cried clutching the feet of her lifeless body as it hung from the ceiling of the bedroom. I cried as people from the neighborhood gathered in the house and helped bring her body down. I threw my arms around Mother’s cold shoulders and cried, when the body was placed carefully on the bed. I cried with Dadda who broke down on seeing his wife dead. I cried during the numerous phone calls and rites and rituals. I cried until every last ounce of grief, and feelings, and fear of losing my mother was drained out of my body. Then, I wiped my cheeks clean and went home. I was ready to face my mother. And if, in the four hours that I was at school, she had managed to take her life, I was ready to face that, too.
When I got home, Mother was working in the kitchen. I placed my school bag on the sofa and asked from the living room, “What’s there for lunch?”
The question hovered in the air like a hot air balloon, alone but for the sound of water splashing in the kitchen sink and the rising lub-dup of my heart.
Mother turned the tap off and said, “Chicken curry.”
The incident was never discussed in the house again.
“It’s getting dark,” Tara Aunty says, but makes no attempt to get up from the stairs. The sky has turned deep blue and an almost apologetic moon has emerged.
“Yes, the driver must be getting anxious.” I take a couple of steps away from her.
Aunty grabs the iron railing of the staircase and pulls herself up with significant effort. She adjusts her sari, taps her left foot twice to wake it from its slumber, and begins to climb down. Even before her right leg can reach the next step, the left leg twists, casting her body sideways. I rush forward to break her fall, but her hips have already found the stairs again.
Perfect! Couldn’t she have waited for the damn blood flow to restart?
After five long minutes of blaming twenty-four different Hindu gods and cursing the stairs, she asks me if I could walk her home. I can’t come up with a single decent excuse.
“Come, Siya, your uncle would be so glad to meet you,” Aunty says, poking at the doorbell of her house.
“Aunty, I should really get going now. It’s late and I have a taxi waiting.”
“I know, I know. Just come in for ten minutes. I will pack some dinner for you while you have tea.”
“No, Aunty, there’s no need to—”
My protest is cut short as Rajesh Uncle opens the door. “Who do wee havve here?” His joyous singsong is as annoying as his wife’s nasal whining.
“Take a guess,” Tara Aunty says, looking at me fondly.
“Oh, my God!” he exclaims, “Siyaaaa?” And a reprise of Tara Aunty’s comments about my appearance and a discussion of my parents’ accident ensues till one of them realizes that we are still at the door. I am rushed inside with a pair of arms around my shoulders. Tara Aunty disappears in the kitchen. Her foot seems to have healed by itself now.
“Do you remember Alok?” Uncle points to a framed picture on the wall. Alok was two years older than me and used to be my husband when we played house. “He is in the merchant navy now,” Uncle continues without waiting for my answer. “Has to be on the ship a lot but gets around 50,000 rupees a month.”
I blink twice. Did he just tell me his son’s salary?
But Rajesh Uncle isn’t done yet. “I have heard advertising pays well, too. How much do you make?”
“It’s not bad.” I look away.
“How much a month?”
“How is Charu?” I ask, looking at his daughter’s picture on the wall.
“She is good. Got married three years back. Very rich family. She has a little boy now.” Uncle picks up one of the many photo albums parked on the side-table and shows me a picture of a mouse-like baby.
“He’s cute,” I say and extend my arms to pass the album back.
Uncle refuses to accept it. “No, no, this is when he was born. Go on, there are more pictures of him.”
I flip through an endless series of photographs of the kid, taken as he ate, slept, cried, smiled, spat, burped, farted, pooped, stood up, fell down—the works. I make sure to say “aww” and “so cute” at regular intervals, for I am sure Uncle would make me sit through another album if I don’t seem suitably impressed with the heroics of the child.
My suffering ends when Charu’s wedding pictures begin. She had ditched the traditional red for a soft pink wedding dress. There is an air of laid back confidence about her and a grace that she surely didn’t inherit from either of her parents. Uncle recites the names of everyone in the photos for my benefit as I browse through them. There’s a picture of my grandma blessing the newlywed couple. I touch her face with my thumb and try to memorize her smile and nose and eyes.
“Such a gentle soul,” Rajesh Uncle says, looking at Grandma’s picture. “Left us too soon. You didn’t come for her funeral, did you?”
I shake my head.
I continue to look at the picture, wondering how to answer that question. Because I don’t like funerals? Because I loved her too much to say goodbye? Because blocking it out is how I deal with pain?
“Because she was in London at that time for an important meeting,” Tara Aunty answers for me with a lie that my mother must have made up.
Aunty is carrying a white plastic tray with three cups of tea, and plates full of biscuits and sweetmeats. I move the album away to make space for the tray on the table. Aunty passes me a cup before taking one herself.
“Good thing you missed it,” Rajesh Uncle says, picking his cup off the tray. “It was pretty humiliating for your parents when that woman showed up.”
“Raju!” Tara Aunty shoots a look at her husband. Uncle looks from her face to mine and back a couple of times, before mumbling, “No, I meant…” He doesn’t know how to finish that sentence.
I stare at the cup of tea in my hands. So, they know. The whole damn neighborhood knows.
“I’m sorry, Siya,” Aunty places a hand on my thigh. “You know how your Uncle is. He has no sense of what to say and what not.” Uncle has already left the room.
“It’s okay, Aunty.” I nod at her. It gives me a certain satisfaction seeing her face twitch in embarrassment. I imagine her, standing with the whole coven of neighborhood aunties, whispering and smirking at Grandma’s funeral. I wish I knew what Tara Aunty had said then so I could shove it in her face right now. I wish I had been there wearing an invisibility cloak, watching their faces, hearing their words as that woman walked past them.
“What does she look like?” I blurt out before I can stop myself.
“She…” It’s Aunty’s turn to stare at her cup. “She is thin, fair, has dark wavy hair. Nothing special.”
I modify the mental image I have of her.
“It was an indecent thing she did, coming there,” Aunty says, still staring at her cup. “You know how people here are, building mountains out of molehills. Your grandmother, God bless her soul, must have been watching from above and spitting curses at her.”
Well, yea, I can see Grandma doing that.
“Your mother, poor thing, was mortified. Couldn’t even look at the ladies from the neighborhood.”
I want to say, “Because she knew the ladies will be talking about it till the end of their seven lives,” but I don’t.
“I told your mother to ignore everybody and just focus on the ceremony,” Aunty says, leaning back in her chair. It comes to me like a lightning flash, this insight that Tara Aunty considers herself an expert on our family. Like the hours she’s spent gossiping about Dadda and Mother somehow give her a right to all our lives. I feel a hot ball of anger rising in my chest. I hate her. I have always hated her. Her and the whole bunch of them, loitering around the bazaar like they own us.
“I was really mad at your father. He should have stopped that woman from coming there.”
I place my teacup on the table and tell her, as calmly as I can, “Dadda must not have known that she’d come.”
Tara Aunty looks up from her cup straight into my eyes. “What does that man have to do for you to stop taking his side, Siya? He drank every night, left Nisha and you alone for days, shrugged off all responisibili—”
“You’ve only ever heard Mother’s side of the story, Aunty!” I cut her short before she can spit out any more lies. “And Dadda never left me alone. He was there at every single one of my school functions and parent-teacher meetings. He sang and danced at all my birthday parties. He was the one talking to my friends while Mother sulked and sobbed in the kitchen.”
“Your birthday was a difficult day for your mother, Siya.”
“Why? Because she had to cook for forty people? Or, because she had to stop complaining for like two hours?”
Aunty picks up the three cups from the table one-by-one and places them back in the tray. “You will never understand her, beta,” she says softly.
I am done talking. I should leave before I say something mean to her.
“Did you know that your father wanted to divorce your mother?” Aunty asks before I can get up from the sofa. I scan her face to ascertain if she is telling the truth or making stuff up to prove her point. I can’t tell for sure.
“Maybe that would have been better for both of them.”
Aunty’s eyes widen in surprise. “How can you even think of such a thing?” She gets up from her chair. “Do you have any idea what it would have done to your mother? The humiliation! The questions! She would have killed herself.”
I look in Aunty’s eyes, and I know it. It is written in the way she shifts her gaze down and then up at me again. It is clear in the slag of her shoulders, the twitch of her fingers. It is obvious in the movement of her throat as she gulps down her saliva. She knows. And she knows that I know.
I want to get up and leave this room, this house, this neighborhood, this town but my body is sinking into the sofa. I can hear my breathing go faster, I can feel my jaws shut tighter, but I am unable to control them. I clench my fingers into a fist and watch my knuckles go white. There is a droplet on my right hand. Another falls on my left. My cheeks are wet. I purse my lips tight to still their quivering. I hear footsteps shuffling, clothes ruffling. A muffled voice says something to me. I raise my left hand up, palm facing outward. The footsteps stop. The voice doesn’t. I focus on the wheeze of my breath—pull in, force out, pull in, force out. Slowly, I unclench my fist.
A fresh deluge of shame washes over me—I am crying in Tara Aunty’s living room.
“Siya, Siya beta?”
I wipe my hot cheeks, clear the corners of my eyes, and tuck my hair behind my ears.
“Siya, my child, listen to me,” Aunty is standing next to my shoulder, “I understand how you are feeling, but…”
I lift my face up to look at her. She understands how I am feeling? Well, of course, she does. Because narrating a story a few times and living it every single day of your life are almost the same.
“No, you don’t,” is all I say to her.
“You’re right.” Tara Aunty steps back to her chair and sits down. “I can’t understand what you are feeling. All I am saying is that it was a long time ago, you should…”
“Yes, it was. I was nine then. Nine!” A fresh stream of tears flows down my cheeks.
Aunty moves forward in her chair and holds both my hands in her fingers.
“Siya, your mother was going through a difficult phase. You remember your grandmother had gone to live with your Uncle at that time?” Aunty pauses, waiting for an answer from me. I just stare at her. “Your father wanted to bring that woman to live in your house. With Nisha and you.” I wiggle my hands out of her grip. “And trust me,” she continues, “since that day your mother has spent every single minute of her life regretting that you had to see that.”
“Since that day,” I say, “My mother has been dead to me.”
“Siya, it was one moment of weakness. Can’t you forget that one moment for the years of strength Nisha has shown for you?”
“You think I want to remember it?” I shout out. “All I want is one day, one moment when I can be free of that memory.”
Tara Aunty has nothing left to throw at me. She sits in her chair, tracing the green veins at the back of her hand with her thumb.
I clench my jaw to avoid saying more to her. But my desire to hurt her is far stronger than my jaw muscles. “And what strength are you talking about?” I ask. “It takes strength to take control of your circumstances, to change something in your life if you are unhappy about it, not to sit and crib about it all day.”
Tara Aunty raises her face. Beneath my burning anger and a desire to hurl more insults at her, to somehow hurt her, I sense a fear raising its head. Aunty’s face is no longer marked with embarrassment. The lines of anxiety, of concern, have ironed out. Her face is calm, drained of all emotion. I can see that she has found something to throw at me. I wait for her to make her move.
“It takes a lot of strength,” she says, at last, “to bring up your husband’s daughter as your own.”
I watch Tara Aunty’s mouth as words fall out of it. The words form a gray mesh that slowly wraps around me. I want to scream at her – you are a sick, sick woman – but my tongue gets entangled in the gray mesh. I want to pick a teacup from the tray and swing it at her, but the gray mesh forms a noose around my hands and ties them down. I want to search her eyes for clues of deceit, but the gray mesh covers mine, like a veil. And the only face visible through the veil is of my father. He is sitting at the steps of our house, telling me a story about honesty. He is saying goodbye to me at the front door before leaving for a week-long work trip. He is placing the graduation hat on my head, telling me how proud he is of me. Mother is there, too, but I can’t hear what she is saying. I could never hear what she was saying.
Shipra Agarwal is the 2022 Fellow for the Authentic Voices Program by Women’s National Book Association, and Assistant Editor at Identity Theory. She is currently working on her first book, a novel-in-stories based in the small towns of India. In her past life, Shipra was a doctor who scrawled poetry between patients. She lives in Arizona, and tweets from @ShipAgarwal.
*Sadar Bazaar in Jodhpur is a photograph by Tom Thai (Creative Commons license, 2007.) A link to this original work can be found at flic.kr/p/4fuSQV.
If you would like to submit original art for the print issue and/or feature online for this essay, check out our art contest at bit.ly/asianvoicesart, running May 1st-July 1st, 2022.