Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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All through the years of my childhood, when there wasn’t much else to hold on to, I had a fantasy. On those whiskey-scented evenings when Father’s slurred yells slammed like fists into the peeling walls, I would wedge myself behind a sofa or under a bed and close my eyes. Sometimes my brother lay there also, curled tight against me, sucking his thumb although Mother had told him he was too old to be doing that. The knobs of his spine would push into my chest, and his heart would thud against my palm like the hooves of a runaway horse — like my own heart, so that after a while I couldn’t tell the two apart. Maybe that’s how he too became part of the fantasy.
Our family moved often, flurried migrations that took us from one dingy rooming house to another as my father lost job after job. He always managed to find a new one (perhaps knowing that he would was part of his trouble) because he was a skilled machinist. But each job was a little worse than the previous one, a small descent on the downward spiral our life had become. We saw it in our mother’s face, heard it in her lengthening silences.
My brother and I learned some skills of our own as we traveled through those small, hot factory towns of north India, which have blurred in my mind into a single oily smell, a feel of grimy, burning dust in the air. We learned how to be silent, almost invisible, as we sat on the last bench in class, not knowing the answers because we had missed the previous lessons or didn’t have the books. Or as we sat in the far corner of the canteen at lunch, not wanting anyone to see the rolled brown rotis Mother had packed for us in old paper. We looked longingly at the starched uniforms and polished shoes of the other children, whose shiny tiffin boxes were filled with sandwiches made from store-bought bread so white it dazzled the eye. Each time they laughed we flinched, pulling the edge of a skirt over a bruised thigh, a shirt sleeve over a discolored forearm. Were they talking about us — how Mother had asked the shopkeeper for credit, how Father had to be helped home from the toddy shop last payday? How long would it be before they heard about the noises that sometimes exploded from our rooms at night? We learned to arrange our hair so that the pink ridges of a scar on the forehead hardly showed. To look away from knowing, curious eyes as though we didn’t care. To avoid thinking of the things we left behind: a book of fairy tales, a stray yellow dog we fed, a mango tree perfect for climbing, the few tentative friendships formed before we knew better.
We. That was how I thought of my brother in those days, as though he were as much a part of me as my arm or leg — indispensable, to be protected instinctively, but not something one thinks about. As he followed me around silently (he was not a talkative boy) it didn’t occur to me that he might feel differently about our life — that knotted, misshapen thing like a fracture healed wrong, which I accepted because it was what I’d always known.
The year I was eleven and my brother eight we lived in Duligarh, an Assam oil town as sagging and soiled as a cardboard box left to rot in the rain. It was a town of many bars, all of which my father soon discovered. A town where credit was difficult to get. On the streets, people looked at us with hard, closed faces. I didn’t blame them. We were certainly not the model family pictured on the family-planning posters all over town.
One of these posters gazed down at us from the back wall of our school. I remember it perfectly from all the afternoons I spent looking up at it until my neck ached. That poster fed my fantasy through those airless afternoons. In it, a young couple held hands and smiled into each other’s eyes while a boy and girl played tag around them. The man carried a shiny leather briefcase. The woman’s gold chain sparkled in the sun, and the edge of her pink sari lifted in the breeze. The children wore real leather shoes, the kind I’d seen in a store window, spit-shined to a mirror polish. We Two, Our Two, declared the poster, as if revealing the secret to a happy life.
Sometimes I stood looking at it until the sky turned the dull yellow of late afternoon and my brother tugged at my arm, saying, “Let’s go, sister. I’m hungry.” He was not as fond of the poster as I was. He would rather have spent the time shaking ripe guavas from the trees at the edge of the orchard across the street, trees that he considered fair game since they lined the public road. Even at that age, he was more of a rebel than I.
Sometimes we missed the bus because of that poster and had to walk home, trudging through the heat, our sweat-soaked clothes stuck to our skin, our books getting heavier and heavier. Walking through the bazaar I would feel the shopkeepers’ eyes on us: a lanky, thin-faced girl with hair pulled back in two tight braids and a boy whose wrists stuck out of a shirt he’d outgrown, running a little to keep up with his sister. Did they connect us with our parents — that silent woman whose face was a faded flower, that man with a belligerent tilt to his chin and wild, pirate’s eyes, who had knocked down a man outside Bansi’s Liquor Shop? Did they compare us to the family on the poster?
In Duligarh we lived in an old British bungalow that my brother and I loved. It was the first real house we’d lived in. A long, low structure built for some forgotten purpose outside of town, it was inconveniently far from everything (it took Father an hour to bike to the factory where he tested oil-drilling equipment), but the rent was cheap and there weren’t too many prying neighbors. It must have been lonely for Mother all day while we were at school, but she didn’t complain much. Only occasionally would she grumble — never within earshot of Father — that the house was falling apart on us.
And it was. Chunks of falling plaster coated everything with a permanent layer of dust. The windows would not shut properly, allowing fierce-looking insects whose names we didn’t know to come inside. The roof leaked, and when it rained, which was often, we had to make our way around strategically placed buckets.
But my brother and I thought the house was perfect. We loved the wooden porch where we played marbles, the old claw-footed bathtub into which Mother poured steaming water for our baths, and the spear-shaped, wrought-iron grills at the windows that made us feel like we were living in a medieval fortress. Best of all were the servant’s quarters, a small cottage set far back in the bamboo grove behind the house. We were the first to discover it. When we told Mother, she gave an unusually bitter laugh. “Servant’s quarters for us!” she said. “What a joke!” For a while she kept asking Father to see if he could sublet it, maybe to one of the factory watchmen, but nothing ever came of it. Perhaps we were too far from the factory. Perhaps Father, who wasn’t the type to go around asking, never told anyone about it. My brother believed it was because he and I had prayed so hard for it to stay empty.
The cottage was dim and cool even in the stifling afternoons because it sat under a huge tree. Silky nets of spider webs hung from its ceilings, and in the far room we discovered a trapdoor that blended almost perfectly into the wooden floor. Underneath was a small crawl space with a packed dirt floor, just right for a make-believe prison. We dusted off the rope cot that was in the room and dragged it over the trapdoor to hide it further. Then we smuggled an old sheet out of the house, and in the hot afternoons after we got back from school we would lie there in the half-dark and I would tell my brother stories.
That was when I told my brother about my fantasy. For a long time I had kept it to myself. But something about the cottage — perhaps the way, when I looked up from the cot, the leaves outside the window made a canopy through which narrow rays of sunlight fell onto my lashes — gave me an expansive feeling of safety and made me want to tell someone. Once I did, the fantasy became his favorite, the final story I had to tell before we returned to the house to help Mother with chores.
Here is the fantasy.
Our parents are moving again. Everything is packed and loaded. They climb into the taxi and it takes off. But we are not with them because they have forgotten us. From the bamboo grove we watch as the speeding car becomes smaller and smaller and finally disappears. Ecstatic, we grab each other and spin around until the world is a dizzy whirl of rejoicing.
The fantasy was not without its problems, the most important one being our mother. Just before she gets into the taxi she looks around blindly, like a lost animal. She senses something is not quite right. (I do not tell my brother this, but I know he sees it, too.) I wanted to include her in the fantasy. It would have been so easy to have her see a flicker of movement in the bamboo. She would walk into the grove to explore and never return to my father. But I knew it could not be. Their lives were tangled together beyond my powers of extrication. So I let her go.
We live in the servant’s quarters. The bamboo has grown so thick that no one can see the cottage. I cook and clean and teach my brother everything I learned at school. He catches lots of fish in the stream behind the cottage, and we sell some of it in the bazaar to buy whatever we need: rice, salt, shoes. We begin to look like the children in the family-planning poster.
“You think I’ll be able to catch that many fish?” my brother always asked doubtfully at this point.
“Of course,” I replied.
No one ever snatches us out of sleep by our hair and flings us against the wall. No one drags us by a leg across the driveway, the bricks scouring our backs. No one lights a match and brings it so close to our faces that we feel the heat on our eyelids. We have no bruises, not even the ones inside that don’t show.
“What about when we get old?” my brother asked.
“We don’t,” I said. But he wasn’t satisfied. So I had to devise an end for the fantasy.
One winter it snows and snows.
“Snow?” asked my brother. He had never seen any. Nor had I, but in my geography book I’d come cross pictures of the silvery peaks of the Himalayas. I explained it to him.
One winter it snows and snows. The snow drifts into the cottage through the windows and doors. It falls on the bed where the brother and sister are sleeping side by side.
“Just like this?” asked my brother, slipping his hand into mine and laying his head on my shoulder. A pale scar whose origin I couldn’t remember slanted across his cheekbone.
“Yes,” I said.
The snow forms a thick white quilt that covers the brother and sister. It doesn’t hurt. They never wake up. They sleep like this forever.
“Sleep forever,” whispered my brother as we walked back to the house in the humid afternoon.
Things were disappearing from our house. At first it was food, little items that Mother wouldn’t have noticed if money hadn’t been so tight: a small box of biscuits, a half-empty packet of sugar. Then it was clothes: an old shirt of my brother’s, my green kameez with the frayed collar, even a moth-eaten blanket that Mother was intending to throw away as soon as we could afford a new one.
“Did you put them somewhere?” she asked me when I came into the kitchen for a snack.
“No, I didn’t,” I said, glad not to have to lie. I was afraid she might ply me with further questions, but she merely shook her head and started chopping vegetables for dinner.
“I can’t figure it out. It’s not as though we have a servant who might be stealing,” she said. “And now the level in the rice bin seems to be dropping.”
“Spirits, that’s what it is,” declared Aunt Lakshmi, the old woman who owned the grocery store where we shopped, when Mother mentioned it to her the next day. “Spirits. People say that a sahib who lived in that house a long time ago — a smuggler, they say he was — came to a bad end. Hanged himself from the living room rafters. Here, take these mustard seeds and burn them in an iron pot while chanting the name of Rama. That should make the spirits go away.”
The next afternoon when we returned from school, Mother did as Aunt Lakshmi had instructed. We helped her with the homemade exorcism, chanting and sneezing as the acrid smoke rose from the pot and the mustard seeds began to sputter. We said nothing about it to Father.
For a while after that there were no more disappearances. By the time they resumed, Mother had more serious problems to worry about.
Father had fallen foul of his foreman. It wasn’t unexpected. At each of his jobs he found someone to hate, someone who, he believed, was out to get him. Then it was only a matter of time before the chance remark exploded into a fistfight or worse. Soon we would be packing again, looking up railway timetables, deciding what to leave behind.
Now, almost every night over dinner, Father would mutter curses about the foreman, then throw back his head to drink from a bottle gripped in his fist. Mother tried to calm him. From the table in the back of the room, where we did our homework, we could see the tense ridges of her shoulder blades pushing sharply against the worn fabric of her blouse, and we could hear her whispering desperately to him. Stay out of his way. Please, don’t lose your temper. Think of the children — they’re just beginning to settle down, to catch up in school. Times are so bad. What if you don’t find another job?
The nights he was in a good mood, he would merely shake his head and say, You’re right, Mother. That whoremonger isn’t worth wasting my breath on. Or he would swat her entreating hands away, growling, Leave me alone, woman. Don’t interfere in what you know nothing about. But other nights he would turn on her — and us, if we hadn’t already squeezed behind the cupboard or hidden in the damp shadows under the porch. Bitch, he’d bellow, I’m killing myself to feed you and your bastards, and even you’re against me. There’d be the sound of a slap, a pan thrown off the table. Then a breathless grunt.
We knew how it felt, that fist slammed into the side of the head, turning everything black for a moment. The kick in the ribs that left you gasping on the floor. And the pain —we knew how it rose like a wall of water and crashed over you. We would grip each other’s hands, holding our breath, afraid even to sob, and plunge into our other fantasy, the one we shared without words, the one in which our father was dead, dead, dead.
I never asked Mother why she didn’t leave him. We were not a family much given to discussion. Occasionally I imagined how it would be if she ran away with us to her parents’ village, that peaceful cluster of huts under emerald coconut trees filled with singing birds that she sometimes described to us. (At the time, I didn’t know she had eloped with Father, and so, in accordance with traditional Indian culture, that door was forever closed to her.) But I knew already that it was no use running. Father was just too powerful. Like the ogre of a fairy tale, he would smell us out wherever we went.
But there was something else, too, which I couldn’t quite put into words. It had to do with my father’s broad shoulders, the muscles that played like snakes along his arms when he swung us up. The way he could make us feel safe even when we were high in the air. Maybe it was the way light glinted in his thick black hair, its fresh smell on holy days after Mother had washed it for him. Or the way he burst into snatches of song when he was in a good mood, his voice rising pure and unhesitant up to the sky until it faltered over the words he had forgotten. Maybe it was the look in his eyes on those rare occasions when he came home carrying a package tied with the flat red string of sari shops. He would pull Mother to him and thrust it into her hands, saying, “Open it, Shanti.” And while her trembling fingers tugged at the knots and a fierce blush rose from her throat (she was unusually fair, with skin that bruised easily), he would kiss the top of her head or play with the end of her long braid.
Once when I woke late at night and went to the kitchen for a glass of water, I found them sitting at the table, their backs toward me. “Shanti,” my father was saying in a low, choked voice, “I’ve only made you unhappy. Sometimes I wish we’d never met, or that I were dead.” My mother turned and put her hand over his mouth, and her voice, too, sounded choked. “Hush, Ashu,” (I’d never before heard her call him by his name). “Don’t say that. How could I live without you?”
I tried to leave silently, but Father turned around and saw me. I was terrified that he would be angry, that I had spoiled the moment. But he held out his arms and said, “Come, baby.” When I edged over he sat me in his lap and stroked my hair. His hand was rough and awkward, and his calluses caught in my hair, but I wished he would go on forever. Mother smiled up at him with the face of a young girl. He smiled back and crushed us both to him. As I breathed in the odor of his tobacco blended with the clean smell of her soap, my heart filled with a happiness nearly unbearable.
We came home from school, and the black trunk was in our bedroom. Its lid was open, and when I peered in I saw that some of our clothes had already been thrown inside. They lay in small, wadded lumps at the bottom, and when I looked at them I wanted to cry.
We found Mother in the kitchen emptying the rickety wire cabinet where she kept the spices. “We’re leaving day after tomorrow,” she said. Hard white lines pulled at the edges of her mouth. She didn’t offer any explanation and we didn’t ask. We went back to our room, and I emptied out the trunk to pack it right — shoes and books at the bottom, clothes on top folded into neat squares.
“Come and help me,” I said to my brother, but he just lay on his mattress and stared at the cracks in the ceiling until it grew dark and the cicadas started their buzzing outside. He spoke only once, when I tried to pack his clothes. “Don’t touch my things,” he said, his voice vicious and low, like a grown-up’s.
When I woke the next morning, he was gone.
“Where is he?” Father yelled again. His spittle struck my cheek, and I flinched.
“Leave the poor girl alone.” Mother’s voice was almost as loud as his, though it sounded brittle; for a moment I didn’t recognize it. She looked ill, her hair wild about her face, her sari splotched with mud from the ditch behind the house where she’d been searching. The hollows under her eyes were dark, desperate. “She’s been telling you all day that she doesn’t know. Why don’t you bike down instead to the bus station in the bazaar and ask if anyone saw him.”
I drew in a sharp breath and stiffened, but surprisingly Father didn’t say anything. He got on his bicycle and left.
Once my father’s silhouette disappeared around the bend, something inside my mother let go. She slumped down on the kitchen floor among boxes half filled with chipped dishes, and her body seemed to fold in on itself. She put her face in her hands and began to cry, a rasping sound that engulfed her entire frame. Never before — not even when her arm was broken and she had to go to the clinic to have it set — had I seen her cry like this. I put my arms around her, and I was crying too. My chest felt as though someone had grasped it with both hands and was tearing it apart. I wanted so much to take away her sadness that I almost told her. But I couldn’t betray my brother.
Suddenly she looked up at me as though she could see all the way inside me. She wasn’t crying anymore. “You know where he is, don’t you,” she said, and it wasn’t a question. She caught me by the elbows. “Please tell me, please.” Her voice was cracked. “I know you’re afraid of what your father will do to him, but I won’t let him.”
I bit my lip because I’d been brought up, like a good Indian daughter, never to speak back. But then I heard my voice. “You always did before,” it said, sounding bitter and adult. “What’s so different about this time?”
My mother’s face darkened. She took a deep breath, as though preparing for a long, underwater journey, then cupped my face in her hands. “I’ll protect my baby.” Her voice was very quiet. “I swear it on my dead mother’s soul.”
I believed her, although she hadn’t answered my question. Perhaps it was because I knew she wasn’t a woman who promised lightly. Or perhaps because her face, so close to mine, so like my brother’s with those same straight eyebrows, was the one I loved second-best in all the world. Or perhaps because finally, with the dark, tarry night pressing down on us, I accepted what I’d always known deep inside: fantasies can’t really come true.
He was exactly where I thought he would be, huddled against the far corner of the crawl space my parents had missed in their perfunctory search of the servant’s quarters; they hadn’t really believed he would choose such an obvious place in which to hide. When I pushed away the cot and lifted the trapdoor, his eyes glinted for a moment like an animal’s in the beam of Mother’s flashlight. Biscuit crumbs clung to his mouth, and around his shoulders was the old blanket he’d secreted away. I reached down to help him up, but he shrank from me, his eyes filled with hatred.
Mother carried him all the way back to the house although he was really too heavy, holding him close to her chest like a baby. I walked ahead with the flashlight, so I couldn’t hear what she was whispering to him, but by the time we got to the kitchen he had stopped struggling and crying. He even gave me a small smile when Mother fixed us mashed rice and bananas with hot milk and sugar, which had been his favorite meal when he was very little.
We had just started eating when we heard Father. Slowly and noisily he made his way up the porch, bumping once into the wall. We froze, my brother and I at the table, food halfway to our mouths, Mother at the counter where she had been chopping bananas. And then he was in the kitchen, the door he had kicked open banging against the wall, the hulk of his shadow falling on the table between my brother and me. His huge voice filled my skull, the echoes booming outward until I thought my head was going to split open.
I remember what happened next only in fragments, frozen frames that forever branded themselves across my vision. I’m going to kill you today, you little shit-eater. The metallic clunk of his belt as he unbuckles it. My brother runs for my mother. She must have thrust him behind her, for I see her hands, the fingers stiffly splayed, pushing against Father’s chest. Her mouth is open, she’s shouting something, but I can’t hear what it is. She’s on the floor and the belt is in the air, a perfect, lazy arc. Now it’s a cobra striking, the metal fang gashing my brother’s cheek just under his left eye, gouging out a piece of flesh, the blood exploding. A thin scream goes on and on. Mother, you promised you promised you — she pushes me out of her way, holds on to the counter to stand up. Her hand closes around the knife. And now the voice is screaming again, no no no. I listen. I have no control over the voice. Father turns. The belt buckle catches Mother’s wrist. A crack, as of a stick snapping. The knife clatters down. Thuds. A metallic crash. They must both be on the floor, grappling for it.
But I can’t really tell what’s going on because I’ve turned to watch my brother, who is running, who has made it through the door and past the porch and out to the bamboo grove. The sheltering dark gathers him in — elbows and knees, hands, the back of his head. Only his shirt is visible in the moonlight, disappearing as he steps into shadow, then glowing more palely farther away. There are fireflies everywhere, pinpoints of light that blur into a luminous haze. Am I crying from happiness because he has escaped, if only for now? Or is it because I know I cannot join him, that I (my mother’s daughter, after all) must turn back in a moment and face whatever is behind me trying to get to its feet, wheezing and gasping like a dying animal? All I know is that this is how I will remember my brother forever: a patch of white growing smaller and smaller as the bamboo stalks shiver close around him, the fireflies hovering above with their frail, fitful light.