I wake up at four in the morning. Bad time to go to the loo. When you come back to bed you discover sleep has deserted you. Father, decent old man, fond of me though he could never bring himself to show any trace of affection, used to call sleep the land of nod, linguistic crumbs from the Victorian table. He was proud of such phrases and my sister Gauri and I would be hard put to restrain our smiles. I toss on the bed but can’t get anywhere near sleep; switch on the light and try reading a story by an Icelandic writer, fail; mind keeps wandering, minds love travel. I think of Mother—paralysed hip down a year before she died. Her mind must have been nomadic, far-roving mind visiting old places, even those never seen, while the legs remained stilted, stalled, torpid.
Can’t go on with the Iceland story because the mind is at its tricks. I reflect on the volcanic ash over the skies of Europe, paralysing every airport in the continent, making Vishwanathan Anand take a cab and drive what must have been a thousand kilometres (it took him forty hours) to be at Sofia to defend his World Chess Championship. What would an Indian movie make of this dramatic event? Aamir Khan as Anand, racing on a Yamaha through gorgeous scenery—Rhine forest, Alps (goodbye geography and road maps) with the German police after him for speeding, landing at Sofia, covered with dust, two day stubble on unwashed chin, and sitting down against Vaselin Topalov and besting him. Salaam, Bollywood. But the film is a flop. You can’t possibly have an affair in a World Chess Championship. The script writer can’t conjure up a believable scene—Bishop making advances to the Queen, why not? Film fails at Box Office same time as Anand loses to Magnus Carlson. Newspaper headlines called it ‘double whammy.’
Weeds in my garden, Mother’s rather, not much of a garden, but it is the small lawn I am bothered about, weed-choked, have been telling the mali to burn the grass. Moving into Mother’s little house is a blessing; there’s work to do, as in any new place you move into; and it has kept my mind occupied for the past two months. If the mind is engaged things like regret and pointless rumination need an entry pass they are not likely to get.
I seem to breathe acrid smoke; it is coming through the window. What could be burning? Couldn’t be the leaves set aflame by the mali—no one would do that at four! The bell rings. Who could be ringing the bell at four, damn it? I look at the clock, which says five. Iceland has taken away an hour of my life, Iceland and Vishwanathan Anand and a volcanic ash cloud. I take a deep breath—not the right thing to do when there’s smoke around. The house on fire, or what? Is it the chowkidar ringing to say the car door is open or telling me the house is on fire? I recall I don’t have a car anymore. If you don’t have a car, your car door can’t be open—I should have taken logic for my masters. I walk to the door, undo the latch but don’t open the door, draw the window curtain aside and peep through the adjacent window, notice a cycle rickshaw there. Who could it be? It is Mausi, my mother’s elder sister. Can’t believe it. We hug. She pays off the rickshaw guy, I take her suitcase in, and we hug again. And then, cross as ever, she asks, ‘Kya hua, Garima? Have been ringing the bell for ten minutes! You sleep like Kumbha Karna.’ I am not into the inlets and interstices of the Mahabharata—oh sorry, this here is the Ramayana. Me and Kumbha Karna, me slim, after seventeen years of married life and that pot bellied glutton K.K.! Dad was keener on our entry into the Iliad rather than our own epics. But K.K. was someone I recalled. He beat up Indra, that Head Master of godlings. Dad had all those nineteenth-century verse translations of books ‘from the East.’ I recalled two lines:
And he to save the suffering world
His bolt at Kumbha Karna hurled.
Nothing came of it and Indra and his bolt (was it a thunderbolt?) got beaten up by K.K. I nurse some sympathy for the fellow. I am an Aquarian and our symbol is Kumbha, the pot. After years of penance and prayer to the supreme, he was at last given an audience with Brahma, as these congress types are given an audience with Rahul Gandhi. As the devotee is asking a boon, Indrasana, Indra’s throne, Saraswati at the behest of Indra, makes him tongue-tied, twists his tongue to such an extent that the poor blighter asks for Nidrasana, a bed for sleeping. Trust these Brahmins, who had a monopoly on Sanskrit—others would be burnt alive if they ventured anywhere near the language—to come up with such a story.
Now how does one tell Mausi all this? One doesn’t. She tells me even before she has stepped into her yet-to-be-prepared room, ‘I’ll be gone by navratra. You must still be a heathen, eating pork even during those nine sacred days.’ And mutton, I add wickedly, but now we call it lamb, Mausi. I get a cold stare. Ungrateful me. I sense why she has come. Just to be with me, recent divorcee. ‘Recent divorcees’ need sympathy. It’s only when divorcees turn old and remain unhitched, that old ladies start looking hard at their bellies and speculating, ‘Is she pregnant? If so, who’s she sleeping with?’
I never eat pork. Where did she get the idea? I suppose it is the language. If you say, as she has just done, ‘Thu tho navratra mein bhi suwar khaati hogy!’ it sounds nasty enough, the kind of a putdown well delivered and well deserved at the other end. Pretty bitchy of me to think the way I am thinking now. Instead I ask her, ‘You could have phoned Mausi, I’d have come in a cab and picked you up.’ No answer. ‘And there are cabs at the station, you could have taken them. A rickshaw at night!’
‘But it must have been dark when you left the station. Dangerous.’
‘Read the papers. It is your cab drivers who commit murders and rape their passengers, never these rustic rickshaw drivers.’
I don’t argue. There are times you can’t; even if you can it is pointless. A believer in bucolic bliss, my aunt. I change the sheets in her room, switch on the geyser, and get some tea ready, the cardamom tea cooked on the choola with milk and sugar added, just as she likes. The paper comes hurtling in, rolled inside a rubber band. One day the fellow is going to shatter the window glass. Mausi says nothing though she looks at me pointedly. I don’t react. She sees the front page and exclaims, ‘Oh so now he has gone to Arabia, has he? Aur koi jageh nahin mili?’
I have to draw the line somewhere or I’ll never hear the end of it. ‘Mausi, enough! You know my feelings. Not a word against him!’
‘Arre, what have I said! All I want to ask is has he gone there for Haj? Is he doing Umra? Harmless questions you ask of anyone who goes to Arabia.’
Angry as I am I almost smile. A put-downer is necessary. ‘And it is not Arabia. It is Saudi Arabia. Arabia exists only in English translations of Thousand and One Nights, Mausi.’
‘Yes, yes. It is named after a dynasty, the Saudi one, just as some of our chamchas wanted to turn our country into Indira’s India. But it will revert to Arabia one day, just as the USSR reverted to Russia.’
My aunt has more sense than me. Her tongue is a rebel, though. ‘I was just wondering about his next jaunt. Rwanda? No, but he could go to Kenya where they are slaughtering elephants. This party has great respect for animals—if you shoot a mad dog you’d be in jail. And if you trade in cattle you might as well be dead.’ I ignore her absurd comments, no point entering into a fight the very first day.
I smell smoke, again; migrant farmers, tractor-owning ones, are burning the stubble from the paddy fields. It is that acrid smoke descending on us. I remember shouting at my mali a good two months back, in fact a day after I landed here. The lawn was plagued with weeds. Burn the thing, I had said. Remembered I also had been weeded out. That had lent some passion to my decision. He wasn’t convinced. He had dug up the place a bit, got rid of the weeds by the roots and discovered bulbs in the ground.
The doorbell rings and my domestic Indu comes in, and seeing Mausi, touches her feet. Small-town courtesies, it wouldn’t happen in cities. Good lady, Indu I mean. I am relieved, don’t want another minute with aunt alone, or she would home in on the divorce. Even if you love a niece, and she does love me, it is the juiciness of a divorce that attracts people. What went wrong, and then an unasked question hovers in the background always, did it have anything to do with the bedroom? Was he turning impotent, some item not as rock hard as it used to be? No one dare ask that, but you can see it in their eyes.
And let’s admit it, it’s one subject you can only talk to your mother about. No one else; quietly over days lying beside her late into the night, in quiet almost muffled tones, the words spilling out from your insides, loaded with feeling and regret and at times grief, for there has to be a bit of grief, isn’t it, leaving someone or getting nudged out by circumstances or the cussedness of law or another woman. Only Mum could be the one I could say all this to. She could almost echo my feelings. Are daughters echoes of mothers, or is it the other way around? And Mum is dead. How do you tell the whole story, the unravelling of the entire dastan to her sister? You’d need a hundred and one nights. Everything suddenly started irritating him. How come? He was fighting in the office—news does filter back somehow. What has happened, I ask. ‘Don’t ever talk to me about office! Wasn’t that our understanding right at the start?’
‘Yes it was, but now things are hotting up I hear.’
‘Shut up! Shut up I say!’
He’d never been like that, never spoke half as rudely. What has come over him, I start wondering. Then I hear that Sudipta, who was in HRD in the office has been thrown out. I still can’t put two and two together. Wives of colleagues enter with serious faces. When husbands gallivant, friends start wearing masks with lines of worry, suits everyone, friends, wife and the occasion. Once I even told them if he has a fling I am not bothered, as long as he doesn’t fall in love with her. What are you saying, asked one of them. What do you think love is, some well in which you fall? Another added, it is the bed where love splashes, don’t forget.
Then he told me he was leaving office, had got a better offer. What better offer, they’ve thrown you out, is it? He almost turned violent. They threw Sudipta out as well, I added for good measure. Once they threw her out you couldn’t take it anymore. All this fever and fret and fighting because you couldn’t get your hands on her again, isn’t it? Poor you! He became apoplectic. Caught my arms and shook me. That was it. In the court room the judge asked me if we had any children. I shook my head and he nodded. Oh, a barren woman, baanj as we call her in our dulcet butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-its-mouth Hindustani. Poor chap, what else could he do but throw her out. That’s what that male judge’s nod was all about. Thank you judge for being so understanding.
After all I had my mother’s little house with the little lawn, nestling in a small town, a half hour’s drive to Lucknow. Six months back I had come and planted jasmine vines and engaged the mali. Now after the break-up I decided to move here, in the suburbs where jackals used to howl at night when I was a kid. An acquaintance from the town, Dipti, sent me bulbs, a cut from a night-flowering vine, herbs, summer hyacinth. Your mother left them with me, she said, as she stood by and helped me with planting them. It has been over two months now.
Mausi never has breakfast. Her lunch is getting ready, buttermilk being churned in the kitchen without my saying a word to Indu. Carrots and peas are being diced. A bite won’t do me any harm, and I nibble at the paratha. But Indu is from Gorakhpur, and she calls it parathi. You cross a district border and the language turns; small tributaries of dialect fork out, a slurring of vowels you didn’t notice earlier, a softening of consonants. It is not just the language, even genders change. Ah well.
Clouds. I hear distant thunder a skyline away. Dusk is the time the mali waters the lawn and he is at it. I am proved wrong. Of a sudden I smell something good, the wind has brought it through the window, as it brings bird cries. What could it be, this fragrance which reminds me of old days somehow? It is the first time the garden has given off its fragrance, its mehak, as the mali calls it. The bulbs have come alive. The poorwaiya, the east wind, is cool and moist and welcome, arriving like a cone of light at dawn, heavy with the scents from the garden and the bulbs Mother had left behind, some of them in the ground, and Dipti’s flowering shrubs. I thought the frangipani shrub had died. It seems to have revived. Forgotten flower beds, buried bulbs reminding you they are not done. Each flower has a different and a definitive scent, but language hasn’t managed to give each one a name.
A wistful fragrance floods my senses in spasms. What would have happened if I had got the lawn burnt in my anger? Would the smells have wafted up to where I was, next to the window? The mind wanders. What if a songbird is put in a tandoor? Would she of a sudden start singing? Get rid of your bleak images, I tell myself.
I am in a state of semi-sleep now and the dream-boat embarks—I think of incense trees, the ones sent by the King of Punt to Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt in a boat—he had no clear idea what exactly she had asked for; she wanted vines of some sweet smelling saplings. He sends off a whole frankincense tree, in fact a grove of trees. That’s how kings respond. An Incense Fleet moving out from myrrh terraces, loaded with resin and frankincense, ivory and gold, hugging the shores of the Red Sea as it sails towards the throne of the two lands, Upper and Lower Egypt. Now of course they were linking Queen Hatshepsut with Sheba. ‘The best of myrrh is upon her limbs, her fragrance is divine dew.’ The incense tree, however, is engraved in the Egyptian’s temple to Goddess Hathor. Historians are now confused between the two. Punt, Hathor, Hatshepsut, Sheba crowd my brain as I doze off.