Blessings of the Goddess
By Gargi Mehra
When their building came crumbling down, Nandita and her son moved in with me at the behest of my husband Alok, who lived across the Arabian Sea. He fitted together the pieces of our lives with the same ease with which he tackled his jigsaw puzzles. A veneer of loneliness had settled upon my house, and the duo’s arrival swept it away.
Days earlier, Nandita’s husband Yogesh had flown out of Mumbai and joined Alok in the crippling Middle-Eastern heat of Dubai. At the height of the eighties, everyone around us was “going abroad,” even if it meant flying a distance shorter than a domestic flight. No sooner had Yogesh heard the news than he called Alok who, as always, engineered those portions of my existence where I had never sought change. Alok did not seek my permission, indeed he did not even drop a hint as to the imminent upending of my life. But perhaps if he had, I might have approved. After all, it fell to our lot to stretch out the helping hand of humanity, as others had done for us.
Nandita and her son carried with them almost nothing, all their life’s little treasures rotting in the debris that the fallen concrete structure had left behind. I showed Nandita the spare room, muttering under my breath that the old bed creaked and the mattress had seen better days. She spoke little, but as we walked back into the living room, she burst into tears upon my shoulder, her cheeks wetting my dupatta. Her son, a reticent young boy called Jatin, asked, “Why is Ma crying?”
I could think of nothing to say, and merely changed the topic by asking him what he would like for lunch. Nandita extricated herself from me, and wiped her nose with the edge of her saree. We eat everything, don’t bother about us. Come, I will help you.
The three of us fell into a routine. Every morning after the school bus spirited Jatin away, I shrugged into my corporate avatar and boarded the local train that ferried me to my job at the bank. In the evenings, a tray of piping hot tea and snacks awaited me upon my return. For a while it felt like I had slipped into Alok’s shoes, viewing the world while perched on his throne. But his world was different now. My old friend Kiran returned to Mumbai radiant with tales of glittering parties in Dubai where they began with vodka at ten and ended with rum at the crack of dawn, staggering home on Friday mornings when the first cries of aazan rent the air.
Was Alok enjoying himself? Kiran set her lips in a thin line, and the pity in her eyes answered my question. But there was no magic wand I could wave to transform my husband, so I stoppered my heartache and fell deeper into the loving arms of my banking career.
My house, like most in the building, had only one bathroom. While Nandita bathed, I drew out the ironed salwar-kameez I would wear to work from my neatly-stacked wardrobe. She emerged in a haze of soapy fragrance, her curls sobering into straight lines when they were wet. She lit two incense sticks and prayed to the photo of Ma Durga – her addition to my mini-temple.
She slotted the incense sticks in the stand, and then faced the mirror. I watched from the crack in the door while she dipped her finger in the sindoor and began streaking the red down the middle of her scalp. She didn’t appear to feel my gaze hot upon her, and I shut the door before she did.
She dug herself deep into the trenches of housework, the only way she knew to live her life. I questioned her lack of ambition. Why had she never pursued a career? She had graduated with an honours’ degree, even if it was in the arts. Her response did not please me. Her mother had coaxed the degree out of her – she had not desired it for herself. But then, where had she unearthed the motivation to absorb the text of a myriad books and pass with such distinction? I had graduated in commerce, and told her so, but she marvelled at the comparison. I was so smart, she said, she could never imagine me a housewife, and she a working woman.
Some people, she insisted, are meant to live a certain way.
On the days when I could, I turned away from the pile of papers on my desk and hurried home. We enjoyed tea and pakodas, and then left the four walls and ventured outdoors. Jatin played cricket in the park next to our building, while we circled the area.
Our stroll carried us towards the carts of the hawkers, where we knocked on watermelons and haggled until we came away hauling bags full of luscious fruits and vegetables. Shopping evolved into an expedition that lasted twice as long in Nandita’s company. Every few minutes, she bumped into someone from her vast circle of friends. She played the perfect social hostess, enquiring after their health and trading recipes.
Once when she was talking to a friend, I edged away, loath to buzz around them like an errant bee, and headed to a fruit seller peddling ripe guavas. I chose five, hoping Jatin would like them, handed over crisp notes in payment, and made my way to where Nandita stood, still in conversation.
“Where is your husband? Oh, there he is.”
The other woman might have said this when I had my back turned to them, counting my change. As soon as I faced her, she turned red. “Oh so sorry I thought –”
Nandita’s silvery laughter lightened the air. “Oh, this is Pallavi. She is like a god for us. If it wasn’t for her, we would be living on the streets.”
It was my turn to be mortified. And not just because her friend had unleashed upon me a stare of wonder. I wished Nandita might have called me a goddess instead, especially as she unravelled the story of her tragedy.
But I could not dwell on the snub for long. As soon as we unlocked the door to our home, Jatin vomited, and then collapsed on the mosaic floor.
While Nandita cleaned up, I held Jatin in my arms. He clutched his stomach in agony, crying out for his mother.
I had a sudden thought. “Jatin, open your eyes.”
I detected a hint of yellowness but I couldn’t be sure. I called Dr. Shirodkar, and he promised to visit the following morning.
We spent a tumultuous night. Nandita must have slept little, and I suffered a disturbed eight hours. Deep sleep had always eluded me, and this alone made me secretly thankful that no infant arrived to ruin what little slumber settled on my lids. We had never discovered the real reason why my womb had never been blessed. The doctors found no malfunction in our organs, neither Alok’s nor mine.
When Dr. Shirodkar arrived in the morning, he waved away the possibility of jaundice. He suspected dysentery, and prescribed a series of pills.
Jatin clung to his mother’s saree. I trudged down to the drug store and procured everything the doctor had scribbled in his squiggly handwriting. Then I dressed for work and left her to fend for herself. I had no choice – a coterie of auditors lay in wait for me.
By evening, the spirit had drained from Jatin’s face. Every time he visited the bathroom that day, Nandita saw blood.
I dialled the doctor once more. This time he came armed with a briefcase and an assistant – a lanky young man wearing slicked-back hair and a thin moustache. He supplied materials and support while Dr. Shirodkar fussed over Jatin, taking his pulse, checking under his eyes, examining his fingernails, and finally pinning him down to press his stomach and gauge the reaction. Jatin yelled in pain when he pressed the side, and the good doctor nodded.
“It’s dysentery for sure. We’ll need to start with injections.”
His lackey drew out the syringes and filled them. Jatin writhed in agony, but the doctor flipped him over onto his stomach as he would a pancake. He pulled down the boy’s pants and exposed his buttocks. Without much preamble, he flicked the syringe and plunged it into the flesh of the hips. Jatin squeezed his mother’s hand hard, while she stifled a yelp. When he let go, she nursed the redness that had infused her palms.
The lackey shot glances at Nandita. I glimpsed desire in his eyes, and a sudden image of the two of them coiled in passion rose before me. I lowered my head in shame, cursing my mind for calling up blasphemous visions while the little boy squirmed. Mercifully, those gathered around me did not suspect anything.
The days melded into one another. The upkeep of the house slipped from Nandita’s capable hands. She tended to her boy every waking minute. I hired a maid but let my friend preserve her reign over the kitchen.
Work had swallowed both Yogesh and Alok in its quagmire, so deep they could not extricate themselves even for a day. Their foreign assignments had elevated their titles and fattened their bank accounts, but the duties did not allow them even a moment’s reprieve. Nandita understood none of it. I closed the door on her tears every day, and crossed the threshold in the evening to the sounds of her weeping on the phone. The doctor and his lackey returned daily to administer more injections. I didn’t think they hurt, but the boy recoiled, and had taken to screaming whenever they pulled his pants down to administer another dose.
I came home one evening to find him howling. I thought the spasms had got hold of him, but Nandita explained – he craved a toy fridge, a miniature version of the one that stood in my kitchen, one that would hold tiny little bottles of cold drinks. He thrashed his arms and pushed away his medicine. I told Nandita to wait, and hurried out to the small shop nearby. The joy that erupted on Jatin’s face when he set eyes upon his new possession erased my tiredness completely, and blunted the edge of my growing resentment.
The next time Dr. Shirodkar visited, however, he advised another blood test. The lackey pricked Jatin’s index finger, and his face turned ashen when not a droplet emerged. He punctured each fingertip until he wrangled enough to run another test.
My house held two small rooms, the whole area totalling no more than eight hundred square feet. I had banished the dull beige that builders always chose, and hired painters to splash a pleasant sky blue upon the walls, in preparation for the baby boy that would never enter our home.
Alok wondered at my extravagance, accusing me of painting the house when we had merely scraped together enough money to purchase it. But I had always dreamed of cool blue walls, carpeted floors and sofa sets with cushions matching their upholstery.
Of these, I attained only the walls. The tiles remained stubbornly mosaic, and cane furniture invaded the living room.
Alok’s presence lingered in the cream shades of the sofa and the plainness of the television unit. I adored the paintings on the walls, one of a paved pathway somewhere in Europe, perhaps Italy or France, and another of the lady with the lamp.
None of that mattered, as Jatin lay curled into a foetal position most of the day, swallowing only the simplest of foods and missing school, missing playing with his friends, while Nandita wailed, stopping only to curse her stars for afflicting disease upon them at such a crucial moment.
Yogesh called often, but Nandita crumpled on the phone, her tears consuming her words. She faltered as she narrated the blood sample episode. I never could decipher what he said on the other end of the line. Did he stay quiet, or did he offer solace instead of rushing to her aid? Did he ever fear that his son may never recover, and that he may not see him one last time? The high rates for international calls meant he could afford to console her only for minutes at a time.
Sobs wracked her body when the call ended. I eased her away, and placed the receiver back on its cradle, noting the dust marring its black body. Why hadn’t Nandita cleaned it? A pang of guilt followed, and I picked up a rag and dusted the table and phone myself, while Nandita sobbed and coddled Jatin at the same time. I had never understood Bengali, so I couldn’t be certain, but his placating tone and firmer voice implied he had embarked upon the road to recovery.
More than a month passed before Jatin regained his strength. In all, he had received fourteen injections in as many days. The doctor had dangled the threat of hospitalization, but both Nandita and her son feared that option. I shared their fears. In a hospital she would break down much sooner than in the comfort of a home.
She fed him mashed dal and rice every day, and always prepared two dishes – one for him and one for the two of us. I enjoyed her cooking, more so because it relieved the necessity of my entering the kitchen. In due course, I released the maid who came in for the cleaning.
Soon Jatin regained enough strength to visit the passport office, and they stood in queue for four hours while an officer checked their forms and stamped their passports.
Yogesh weaved some of his corporate magic so that their passports arrived at my doorstep, bearing the visas they needed to travel.
Colour infused Jatin’s cheeks once more, and he resumed playing with his friends. His mother hovered by the playground, urging him to the caution he would never exercise himself. She beamed at him as he caught the ball like he used to.
He bade goodbye to all his friends when he left, and I wondered if heaviness had clutched his heart, with the fear and uncertainty that comes with your life being torn asunder.
I saw them off at the airport. Nandita knew nothing of international travel, and neither did I. Both our husbands had instructed us in the process. I recited the steps in my head while she fidgeted with the ends of her saree. For her son’s sake, she plastered on a smile and masked her apparent nervousness. At the check-in counter, I chatted with an air hostess and requested her to assist Nandita. The lady offered me a look of surprise. “Will you not be joining your sister?”
The logic behind her inaccurate deduction baffled me, but the energy to explain exceeded my reserves, so I merely shook my head. Fearing she would not offer much help, I turned to Nandita and once again explained the process.
I saw them off at the drop point for the security check. Nandita had wrested control of her curls and wrangled them into a chaste bun. She wore her usual large red bindi, and a thick moat of sindoor parted her hair. She threw a protective arm around Jatin as they queued up and eventually melted into the crowd. I craned my neck to search for them, but earned the wrath of the other passengers who complained that I was blocking their way.
When I returned home, the silence in the house stifled me. It was the first time I’d been alone by myself in a long while.
I turned on the radio. A series of plaintive melodies bounced off the walls.
I dug out a saree from my bedroom cupboard, an old one from my wedding days. It took me a while to drape it, but in the end the pallu rested comfortably on my broad shoulders and the pleats settled in position at my waist. I pressed a maroon bindi between my brows, combed my boy-cut hair using my fingers, and noted my appearance in the mirror.
Women have scaled the heights of silliness.
I threw off the saree and ripped off the bindi. I changed back into my salwar kameez and left the house. The street lights flickered on as I began my walk.
Gargi Mehra works as a Project Manager in the IT arm of an international bank. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines online and in print, including The Writer, Litro, On the Premises and others. She lives in Pune, India, with her husband and two children. She blogs at www.gargimehra.com.