Sunday, 16 December 2012

Rain


Rain
 

The brooding summer afternoon quietly melted away.

At length, its silence was broken by a creaking sound. Perhaps somewhere in the house, a door had opened and its hinges complained of dryness.

Popping out from the bathroom on the terrace, Eela – her hair and her two-days-old clothes dripping a watery trail – fled towards the veranda. The scheme was that she’d change into her green dress at the last moment. She didn't want any wrinkles today. Wrinkles meant imperfection and she had a swank perfection in her mind.  

Seeing her, Seema, her sister, did quite the opposite. She darted toward the four-by-four roofless bathroom to take her turn to bathe.

Barefooted, Eela ran the length of the veranda, past the parking of the rickety tricycles; past the explosion of soiled clothes around the linen-vat; past the rusted wheel-chair; past the screeching floor-fan and past Naani on her wobbly cot.  

Bang!!  

She rammed into the door at the end of the veranda.  

Inside the longish room which was originally a perpendicular extension of the veranda, her two youngest sisters were asleep on the floor exactly under the ceiling fan. Lulled by the dreary hum, they snored softly. 

“Sh-sh-sh!” she froze as she saw them and pressed her fist to her mouth to throttle the scream that wanted to wake them up. 

No! No! No! What have I to say to them? I have nothing. Really!  

And, as if to deflect her attention from the girls, she closed her eyes. A smile rose to her quivering lips.  

Soundlessly, like a knowing indoor cat, she traced her way around the four string-beds which took up most of the space in the room, to the little mirror on the rear wall. She opened her eyes and looked into it. It held a flushed face, vulnerable, with little tics beating under the skin of the lips and jowls; yet invincible, with unswerving eyes that waited, listened, behind a film of curious tears. As if they could see that somewhere a new world was readying itself for her.  

She bit into her lips and patted her flared-up cheeks with her cool fingers. 

Stop! Oh stop! You’re mad! You can’t let them see how happy you are. It’s shameless to be so happy for yourself. 

And beyond the radiant face in the mirror, she saw a green set of cotton shalwar-kamis spangled with minute yellow polka-dots, laid out beautifully on a string-bed.  

In a dancing pose.  

One arm outstretched, the other folded at the elbow and placed on the chest looking like it was waiting for a kathak dancer to slip into it.

She stretched up on her toes and extended her right arm far out; then bending the left one to place her hand on her panting chest… wh-o-o-o-sh! she swirled around in a complete circle as if she herself was that awaited dancer. 

Oh! I’ll be beautiful. 

And she swirled again; and again; and yet again. a stray nimbus cloud that had found its way in through the window, her dark hair showered little drops of water. 

She stopped and looked at her green dress. 

Look at you; so proud and stiff; pretending as though you haven’t been worn countless times by each one of us.

“Bitches…what are you all bathing for?” Naani’s voice came piercing the still afternoon air.  

Wasn’t it clever of me to give you for a wash to the dhobi down the street? You so crisp! You so new! Oh, I must remember to thank old Dhobi for all the starching and ironing he’s done!  

“Why didn’t I let your father wring your necks when he was at it? Why? Oh why?” Naani wailed. 

‘omens are good. The shopkeeper lent me the yellow dupatta for the evening! No guarantee! Ta-tha! No advance! Ta-tha. And thum-m-m! He packs it and puts it in my hand. ‘Take it home and try it. Pay me if you like it!’ Oh! It goes so well with the yellow dots on the lovely lovely green!! The divine, the angelic green!  

She closed her eyes, threw her head back and swirled again. There was no rain this time. The cloud had dried. 

“Evil souls must rot in hell one day. The man knew she had slept with every man in the street; that’s how you all came,” Naani squealed. 

Oh I can’t wait to hear the ting-a-ling-a-ling of the ear-rings! Eela stopped and touched the lobes of her ears with both hands.  Oh! I’ll be beautiful. I will. And they’ll choose me. Shush-sh-sh! Listen! The clock ticks: they will, they will; the sleeping girls snore: they will, they will, the fan sings: they will, they will. I can hear The grandmother of The Boy: ‘I choose her to be my grandson’s wife. She’s the girl I and the grandmother before me have been looking for."  

She swirled again and stumbled. Remembering that she had promised herself to be silent, she put her hand on her gasping stomach and giggling without a sound, she swayed towards the nearest bed.

The purring and snoring went on, uninterrupted. 

 “A-a-a-a-ah! Allah! Allah! A-ah! Show me the way to heaven! Set free my soul! Save me! Oh Great one! Save me from sins and sinners! Free me from this pain! A-a-ah! This pain; this life! O-o-oh so rotten! My evil daughter’s evil offspring! Shameless, saucy women, dress up like sluts and go…Ah-h-h-h!!!” Naani’s repartee with God was always long-drawn.  

For her own convenience, Eela mentally branded each day according to Naani’s mood on that day. There were Mute Days and Ranting Days; there were Dead-relatives Days and Live-relatives Days. And today? Ah today was just another of her Leg-ache Days. She had moaned through the morning and was moaning the afternoon through. Eela had given her each of her four-hourly painkillers – seven, eleven and three – on the dot -  but they had failed to silence her. Rather, her moans had grown louder and her protests for being given something stronger, more incitive. Like:    

“Stop painting your faces like sluts and give me my injection now;” and “These two-a-paisa candies don’t work on me anymore. Give me something real, you  bitch.”

But the little voice at the back of Eela’s head had kept telling her to hold back Naani’s morphine shot. 

The only way to be sure Naani’s moans do not drive the guests up the walls is to put her out when the time is right. 

And it would save her the embarrassment of explaining the situation to a traumatized audience. What in the world could she say? She couldn’t possibly argue with the guests that her Naani had lost her mind and on top of that she knows a whole string of cuss words so... 

“Hahaha!” she had chuckled soundlessly. 

How would that sound? she thought. “Ignore the old crone's swearing, auntie! She has a leg-ache and when she has a leg-ache she swears like a cheated pimp whose cut wasn’t paid,” she enunciated aloud and giggled at the sheer absurdity of it. 

Shshshsh! she put a finger on her lips.

Oh how happy Naseem Sahib, her director, would be to see her do such an amazing piece of mime!

Really, she and all others in the family were as immune to Naani’s gibberish as they were to the mournful whine of the floor-fan, or to the monotonous dribble of water from the leaking storage drum; or to the weaving and spreading that Majida did, of webs of sin and virtue.

But they were unable to exactly construe – not that they cared enough to apply their wits – how less-accustomed audiences judged Naani's avowals.  

“She’s lost it,” some neighbors said. 

“Old age!” others remarked. 

“She’s been through a lot in her life,” still others said, hinting that her mental disfigurement was bound to have a sinister story behind it and that, perhaps, the non-stop cussing wasn't totally unjustified. 

Again, not that their opinion mattered.

 But that of the guests expected that evening did. To Eela, at least.

Breathless and woozy from her swirls, she collapsed on the taut weave of the string-bed and slouched, mouth open and panting. then, falling back on the bed, she pressed a trembling hand to her eyes.

"I'm too happy – too happy!" she whispered and tried to remember all the tragic scenes she had played to sober herself down.

She looked at the wall clock.  

Four-thirty-five! 

Tea-tray and food platters: Ready. Visitors’ room: Dusted and Decorated. Terrace and veranda: Swept and Mopped (stuffing the explosion of dirty linen back into the vat will take a minute). Now, only Naani needs to be quieted 

The rishta ladies were scheduled to arrive at five-thirty which meant six (if not six thirty). The drug took fifteen minutes to take the desired effect. She would give it to her at five-forty-five and Naani would freeze from six to seven thirty. The women would be long gone by then. If, by any chance, they were still there, it wouldn’t matter. Under the effect of the drug, Naani’s tongue became so thick, no one, not even Eela, could make out the slurred nonsense.  

She was sure the plan would work. She had tried a similar one on their first visit. 

With her breath back in place, she ran out of the room on her toes and, taking little dancing steps back and forth, right and left; making eight-shaped loops up and down the veranda into the visitors’ room which was right next to Sisters’ Room. 

The little room with its huddle of plastic sunflowers in a narrow-mouthed brass vase, its multi-colored floral sofa-wraps and its pink rinse of cheap wall-paint looked as if it was holding its breath and waiting. 

Perfect! 

Then she fled the 39 steps down the narrow stairwell and mopped her way back up; wiping off the muddy footmarks her brother Bhai Ji had just left. It had rained the previous night so mud had accompanied every one coming home that day. 

“Where’s my injection, you brazen slut? I'll tell your brother you acted in the college plays from where they go directly to the cinema and sleep with all the actors and...' Nani’s howls echoed down the stairwell as she gathered layers of dirt in the folds of the thorny jute-cloth. Even in her madness Naani could to hit one where one lives.

After hiding the floor-swab behind the old water heater on the terrace of which only a frail skeleton was left, she sprinted towards the tiny kitchen which they shared with their sister-in-law Majida. Six cups and saucers were perched at right angles from each other on a bendy plastic tray which she had swathed with a starched white cloth; and beside them a stack of quarter plates and some teaspoons in a little basket.  

Oh I wish like the cups, the plates too were a set!! She worried. 

But the thought of letting a minor defect spoil the perfection was unbearable; so she eased herself out of the anxiety. 

They won’t notice; I’m sure. 

The two platters in which she had assembled biscuits and samosas could be seen lying untouched on top of Majida Bhabi’s fridge with a cloud of flies was hovering above them. She waved it away and covered the platters with a crochet-net napkin. 

Good. The three dare-devils haven’t messed up any of the arrangements until now. Seema will be taking over soon. I’ll tell her she needs to stay in the kitchen to see that nothing goes wrong at the last moment. Majida.could easily give the verdict that serving tea in borrowed crockery was a sin because it misled the guests. On that pretext she could even return it to the neighbors.

Everything was just right except for Majida’s obstinate sulk – as blue and flagrant as Eela had first detected it that morning and had tried to please her with an offer to prepare her boys’ breakfast. Although Majida Bhabi had bestowed on her, the joy of cooking breakfast for the three princes, she had withheld the pleasure of removing the moping look from her face.  

Bhai Ji, their brother, however, had seemed in a good mood as she had seen him climb up the stair-well a few minutes ago. 

 Just a bit tired. That’s all. Not looking like he’s going through one of his wretched doldrums that ever end up in group squabbles that ever end up in the siblings dividing up into two cold-warring militias that ever.... 

“Eela! Eela!” she whispered to herself. “Stop right here! Don’t you dare think bad things today!”  

Bhai Ji was anyway not needed in the visitors’ room as Eela expected the guests to be all women. She had requested him to be home early that evening just in case a surprise male guest turned up. Also, she thought, to have a man around the house, especially one dressed in office clothes would be impressive – a Dignified-Family thing. 

My dear dear Bhai Ji!  He’s so good at heart! Look how he remembered to be home an hour before his usual time. I know that he’d think a hundred times before asking his mean boss a favor; but he did today; just for me. 

“Come and clean me, Eela! Please come!” Naani called, her voice suddenly transformed from a shrill bellow to a meek appeal. 

That’s how mad she is, Eela thought. Knows exactly when to stop being a blaspheming hag and become a dependent invalid! I’m lucky I haven’t changed as yet. 

Suddenly, time seemed short. She had to be quick now – really quick. 

The sisters shared all duties with her – all but this. She was the only one in the house who had gradually developed a numb that saw her through these 'Clean-up-Naani' sessions; a complete block-out of , first, teenage pride, then, the vanity of the twenties; a deadness that made her remove the muck bare-handedly, unshakably; as though she was an android programmed to do it. 

She made a dash back to Sisters’ Room to look at the wall clock. 

Five-thirteen!                                               

Oh no! Not a minute left to waste! 

With the cleaning being taken care of, Seema made Naani a quick cup of strong and sweetened milk-tea. She always did. As if it compensated for not ever offering to do the washing! 

As if! 

Leaving Naani sipping her sweet tea in the cradle of Seema’s arms and enjoying that short moment of after-wash newness, Eela ran to the old cupboard in the jobless younger brother’s room at the other end of the veranda. She took the keys out from where she had hidden them in the pocket of her under-shirt and opened the lock.  

A treasure unfolded itself into sight as she did so: a few odds and ends of a century-old dinner set which Naani’s grandfather – a footman to a British bureaucrat  – had brought from England where his English master had taken him as a recognition of his loyalty, a few empty jewelry boxes, a bunch of Maa’s knitting needles, a cookie-tin which Maa had converted into a sewing box, some poetry books she used to read and several piles of folded loose fabrics which she had collected for her girls’ dowries and which no one until now had dared remove from the cupboard. 

Everything smelled of naphthalene and damp wood.  

Eela slid her fingers across a red silk piece, paper-thin and very very smooth. Her eyelids dropped as her fingers slinked further into the sinuous folds. She waited and listened; and listened and waited; for the soft gasps of this new world that had slowly crept up unto her in the past few weeks; that waited for her as she waited for it; the world of silken walls and silken floors; of spongy cushions, velvety rugs; and petals on her body which rustled as she moved; and trails that whispered behind. 

Swish-swash! 

Oh to carry the whisper along!! As though you’re floating on a sea of silk!     

Ting-g-g! Tong-g-g-g! The clock chimed to announce the beginning of the next half-hour.  

Five-thirty! 

Eela eased out the fine-china curry-bowl from the top shelf and, clasping it to her stomach, lifted its lid. Inside were a few vials of liquid morphine, some disposable syringes and a doctor’s prescription. Quickly, she removed a vial and a syringe and placed the bowl back in the cupboard. 

On her way back, she veered off towards the sleeping sisters, tickled their feet with her toe, and headed out. She stopped at the door, turned around and looked at them. Not a hair on them had moved as if they too were on morphine.

“A-a-aw!” she pouted her lips at their sleeping forms. 

Suddenly she was filled with the deepest, most ardent affection for the girls. 

O-o-oh my little sweethearts! Look at you! So young! So innocent! Who could say that you’re the bread winners of the family? Eighteen and nineteen and working twelve hours every night at the out-source Call-Center. It's a wicked thought, waking you up for the guests. The least we can do for you in return of your toils is to let you get enough sleep!  

But, somehow it was impossible for her to walk out of the room carrying the powerful blast of adoration in her bosom.

So she walked back and kneeled down beside them. 

She felt so tender towards them, she could weep. 

“Hush-sh-sh-sh!” she put her finger on her pouted lips and hushed an imaginary intruder. Softly, she tucked a wisp of hair fluttering on her youngest sister’s brow behind her ear. M-u-u-a-ah! She performed a keen touch-less kiss for each of them.  

“Oh how I wish I could do something for you!” she whispered. 

Meanwhile, a squabble had brewed outside. Their Married-and-Returned sister whom they secretly called Nikki Naani and who lived on the two-room fourth floor, was yelling at Seema from her terrace on the veranda roof. The summary of her charges was that Seema had bathed out of turn and finished the water that she had collected in the storage drum so painstakingly when water-pressure had been good. Seema was combating the offensive fearlessly. This too was an everyday thing.
 
It’s better if the fights are all fought and over with before the guests come, Eela thought as she headed for Naani’s cot. 

Naani’s groans muted when she saw her coming down the veranda with her morphine. Her pinched eyes widened as much as they could, her gaze fixed on Eela’s hands. Only when Eela had filled the medicine in the syringe, did Naani look up at her face.

All of a sudden, Naani raised both her arms towards Eela in an asking-for-a-hug way. Eela didn’t take notice. Naani raised her neck and extended her arms further up. Years-old smell of unwashed flesh filled Eela’s nostrils. Curiously, she was as oblivious to Naani’s amiability as she was to her curses. She raised the filled syringe in the air in front of her eyes to see that there were no air-bubbles trapped in it.  

“This is important,” the kind nurse who had taught Eela how to give a shot had said.  

“Let’s turn over, Naani,” Eela said in a flat voice.   

“My lovely; my precious; come here and hug Naani,” Naani said, sounding as she had sounded ages ago when Maa was alive and Naani up and about. 

Eela performed a ghost of a hug and pushed Naani to her side with her left hand. Then she nipped a thick gob of shriveled flesh between her fingers and pressed the needle in. Slowly, the medicine entered Naani’s eagerly-raised side. 

For a while, she stood by her grandmother’s bed, looking at her taking uneven breaths as she lay still in anticipation of heavenly bliss that had just pierced her body and entered in.  

She looked at the dangly gold earrings in Naani’s ears. They had dropped to the sides of her head, the little bells on their ends touching the discolored pillow. 

Not now…she’s not fully deadened yet. I’ll come back for the earrings when I’m dressed and ready. 

And she walked back to the Sisters’ Room with green-and-yellow pictures of herself in her mind.    

 Luk chup jaana makai da daana…” Naani’s sinking voice followed her.

 

***

 

In the beginning there had been no sign of ill luck except that the rishta women had arrived very late. The matchmaker, a pot-bellied woman with a permanent scowl and an avid appetite for savories, however, had come on time to enforce the arrangements she considered necessary. 

“Samosas and biscuits?’ she had cried disbelievingly. “My dear girl, you ought to know by now that rishta women expect special treatment. Now be quick to send Seema to get a roasted chicken from the eatery at the corner of the street.” 

So she had had to wake one of her sleeping sisters to ask for more money for the chicken. 

Burly fumes of spices and roasted meat had swarmed up the stairs ahead of Seema when she had returned holding a big paper pouch with ‘Lahore Chargha’ printed on it. It had cheered the fussy match-maker a bit. 

“They’re coming to finalize the rishta today,” she had promised, overwhelmed by the prospect of a lavish meal. 

They’d come a little after six-thirty when Naani had already kicked her leg once, a sign that her stirring time wasn’t too far.

Everything else had been perfect – according to her wishes. She had looked lovely in the noisy green-and-yellow dress and Naani’s ear-rings. Majida Bhabi, although still unsmiling, had come and sat with the guests for her usual fifteen minutes. Bhai Ji had peeped in and said his salam. And the Married-and-Returned sister, whose scruffy appearance and coarse manners – not to mention her sweet-and-sour smells – could have dampened the brilliance of the show, hadn’t showed up. 

Knowing that her scheme to coincide Naani’s morphine slumber with the guests’ visit hadn't done well, Eela had asked Seema to spare the customary fifteen-minutes-after-arrival norm and serve tea right away. Seema, as always, had emerged the champion of the show with balancing herself perfectly between little-sister modesty and brisk hospitality. She had even managed to keep the flies out when tea was laid.
 
They had left them for the expected leave-them-alone-to-eat ten minutes. From the parting in the curtain drawn across the door between the visitors’ room and the Sisters’ Room, Eela had seen that the women were devouring the savories. Although a part of her wished some roasted chicken was  left for the two younger sisters’ dinner, seeing them eating doggishly gave her some reassurance.  

It’s a sign of consent. Everything’s okay. I should stop worrying. 

Later, the bearded woman with molten eyes who, they said, was The Boy’s grandmother by blood relation – the real grandmother had died last month leaving the ‘Quest for The Daughter-in-law’ in the middle – had even showed signs of announcing her consent. Time and again – or perhaps only when her eyes met Eela’s – she would thrust her hand into her handbag and fumble for something. Each time she had done that, Eela’s heart had lurched frighteningly. 

What does she have in there? The Ring? The Boy’s photo? Or just talli-tarai? (money presented to the would-be bride when the rishta is confirmed) 

But again and again, the hand had emerged bare.  

Say something! Show a sign! Give a signal! Eela had first pleaded with her in her head. But slowly she had become tired of waiting. 

Leave if you want to do it in your next visit. Please leave before Naani starts bombarding me! Stand up and leave, she had implored with them inside her head. 

Darkness had fully cloaked the terrace outside, swallowing all shapes and forms. The sounds of the evening show coming from Bhai Ji’s room established that the time was somewhere between eight and eight thirty 

“Iches…s’uts…e’il ’omen.” In the veranda, palpable syllables had begun encrusting Naani’s blurry mumbles.  

Eela had stopped hoping for anything good to happen. She had sat upright on her chair with her eyes fixed on the floor, on a mosquito waving its legs, jerking itself to a slow and painful death. 

“It’s late enough; we must leave,” one of the women had said to the match-maker. The match-maker had answered with a loud burp. The sanction burp. She had been avoiding Eela’s gaze for some time now but had shown no signs of remorse that her promise of announcement of rishta had not been fulfilled. 

A sigh had risen up from Eela’s stomach and escaped through her circled lips.  

There had been hope again. 

I’m sure they’ll make the announcement in the next visit. It’s blessing enough that they’re leaving before Naani fully awake, Eela had thought. 

Eela had stood up first of all. They had looked at her in surprise and stood up too. The drill of slipping into their uniform, the black burquas, had been performed in perfect synchronization: One, Two, Three, Bend and Pick; One, Two, Three, Arms Stretch Out; One, Two, Three, Slip-in!  

Then they had kissed Eela one by one; the three older ones with practiced poise, the only younger one a little self-consciously. And finally they had followed each other out of the room onto the shadowy terrace and from there to the stairwell. 

Just when the last of them was stepping into the stairwell, an earsplitting peal of thunder had been heard. For an instant, lightning had filled every nook and corner of the house with a blinding brilliance and then it had gone pitch dark. The electric-supply had failed.

“Someone, bring a lantern or a candle!” the matchmaker had commanded. 

And, as if in retribution of the severity in her voice, rain had come down with vigor.  

Right from the first moment, it was a thorough downpour! 

There had been whispers in the stairwell. A conflict brewing. Eela had held her breath. Waiting. Praying. Ah! They had turned around and filed back toward the visitors’ room like a row of black wolves prowling about in the dark. 

Seema had run to the kitchen to snatch the lantern before someone else got it. She had lit it and hung it up with a nail dug in the crown of visitors’ room door.

The lantern hanging in the doorway had swayed in the breeze. Its trembling light had played up each line and every puff on the women’s faces. The pink walls had turned a magical red with dark silhouettes flickering on them like upsized shadow puppets. 

Outside, the boys had shrieked as they flitted about the terrace, soaking themselves in the rain. Their shouts had become louder and shriller with every passing instant.  

Eela had felt a chilling fear. 

She and Seema had stood in the doorway, looking at each other.  

The show had outlived its planned age. The next act would be a total surprise. Sooner or later the Married-and-Returned sister would storm in, carrying her naked-bottomed baby and her assortment of smells, bad-mouthing the weather or Seema’s brazenness or some other thing.  

Bhai Ji would emerge from his room wearing a perforated dhoti around his legs and nothing on top. Nothing-g-g.  

Majida Bhabi’s mask would peal off and her teeth would show. And through the teeth, she’d bid a quick clearing up of the kitchen. 

And Naani! 

Oh Naani! 

Darkness and hunger would hurl her down a deeper darker stupor. She’d swear so loud, her voice would kill all other sounds: that of rain, of the boys’, of the laughter of the ghost-audience of the evening show. Yes. A live show would begin, the alive live show: 

‘The Best of Naani’s Blaspheme’ 

 That, at least, can be avoided. There are more vials and syringes in the cupboard. 

And without wasting another second, she had run through the fitful jets of rain that swept up the veranda, to the unemployed brother’s room, leaving Seema wondering what she was up to. 

She had appeared a few minutes later, arms on her sides, her right hand curled into a tight fist. The green dress had gone moist and limp and smelled of stale starch. She had walked past a perplexed Seema straight to Naani’s bed in the middle of the veranda.  

“My dear girls, I think we could all do with a cup of tea each,” she had heard the match-maker’s pushy voice. Oh how she hated that woman in that moment.

For a few seconds Eela had just stood beside Naani watching her wince now and then to throw off the oblivion sitting heavy on her. Moments later, she had bent down and shook Naani's arm. Her eyelids had torn open. 

“A’e… h-h… the’e… h-h… men in the… h-h… house...whoooo...whoooo?” she had asked between gasps. 

Eela had looked back toward the visitors’ room. Through the open door she could see the silhouettes.  

“Why are there s-s-sounds in that ’oom? Who h-h ha’e you called to sleep with you?” Naani had stuttered. 

“Naani I have something for you.” 

And she had brought her hand close to Naani’s eyes and opened her fist for her to see what she was holding. 

“Anothe’ injection?” Naani’s voice had gone squeaky with gratitude. 

“Yes, another injection.” 

At that moment lightening had flashed and the earrings hanging down Eela’s jowls had lit up. Two luminous chandeliers, one on each side of a heart-shaped silhouette. 

“You’re wearing my ear-rings you stinking slut…” shock had roused Naani fully. 

“Let’s turn over, Naani,” she had said coolly. 

“You stole my ear-rings, you thief! Come on; take them off.” 

Eela had remained silent. 

“I know what you’re up to. It is not my medicine that you’ve filled in the injection. It’s poison. You’re doing this so I fall dead forever and you carry on with your business of sleeping with strange men.” Naani’s squeals had been full of loathing but she hadn’t stopped trying to turn to her side. 

Naani’s words had reminded Eela of what the kind nurse had said about an overdose of morphine. 

“One a day is the maximum that the old hag can survive. It’ll kill her if you give her more.” 

A rattle of pans and crockery coming from the direction of the kitchen had blended with the sound of rain crashing down on concrete roofs and tin awnings. Seema, it had seemed, had complied to make more tea for the guests.  

Eela had raised the syringe in the air in front of her eyes and squinted to make sure there were no air bubbles in it. 

“Come on; put me to sleep! Give me the poison.” 

Eela had bent down and pinched a clump of wilted muscle in her fingers. 

“You think I’ll leave you alone? Leave you free to sin? I’ll haunt this house when I die. I’ll never leave you alone! Never! And that pimp brother of yours; where has he run off to? He eats his sisters earnings like a…” 

Eela had placed the needle on the raised roll of muscle and pressed it in.  

In that instant in which her fingers had curled around the tube of the syringe and her thumb had got fixed on its rear end, ready to press the liquid in, lightening had flashed; and in the fleeting brilliance, she had seen Maa and Naani grinding spices on the terrace. 

A crystal clear winter day on the terrace; colorful kites soaring in the sky above; a carpet of red chilies spread out on the floor; Maa’s lithe arms gathering the chilies in glossy red heaps; a stone urn half-filled with a batch ready to be crushed; Naani standing above it, pounding the crunchy contents with a wooden pestle; creamy puffs of air ballooning the washing on the washing-line; Naani and Maa sneezing and laughing. 

In the moments that followed, she had believed in that vision and nothing else. The dribbling green dress, the women and her efforts to please them, Naani’s curses, her sisters’ sleepless nights, the boys’ wild shrieks as they played in the rain; the rain; the thunder; everything had zoomed out and become a distant haze. 

And she had pulled the needle out of the ready flesh.  

“Why, my sweetheart?” Naani had asked, looking at a point beyond her shoulder. She could probably not make out her face because of the dark. 

“Why don’t you go? Why don’t you just die?” she had whispered and pushed Naani’s haunch gently. 

“Are you taking my injection away? Don’t do that, my child,” Naani had pleaded, still looking beyond her.                                                           

But Eela had straightened up and turned around. There, standing only a few feet behind her, had been the youngest of the guests, her face gone bloodless with shock and fear.  

They had stood face-to-face for a few instants. 

“Give me that injection Eela! My child! Keep my ear-rings but give me the injection,” Naani had begged. Her shaking voice had echoed back and forth in the veranda. 

And Eela had walked down to Sisters’ Room where her sisters had started getting ready to go to work.

 

 

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