By Saraswathy M. Manickam
The old woman sneaked into the mirror above the wash basin and lay in wait for me. I knew she was always doing that, and the main thing was to never, never look in the mirror. But that day, I was fifteen years old and I forgot. So, there I went again—walked into the bathroom, took off my blouse, unhooked my bra, glanced into the mirror and screamed. And kept screaming because there was that same old woman in the mirror as before and I could not take my eyes off her and she was undressed just like me with the same bra hanging loose, and in exactly the same sarong as I was wearing and she was doing exactly what I was doing—screaming.
She had a strong chiselled face, black hair flecked with grey and dark eyebrows. The lines around her eyes were etched deeply because her eyes were open wide like her mouth that was shrieking and as I screamed along with her, I felt my face cracking and breaking into exactly seventy-two pieces which I knew by instinct was her age. I was scrambling for them on the floor, desperate to find the pieces and fix them back between my ears when I felt warm pee run between my legs, splash my sarong and slosh into a puddle on the floor.
I tugged my sarong off with frantic hands. Maybe I could bundle it into the washing machine before the madam spotted it. It fell from my grasp into the puddle. I snatched it up. It was dripping wet. The weight of it all. It crushed me. One thing after another, again and again. Sundran would know what to do but I couldn’t find him anymore. He was gone, just like that. Where are you, my brother, I thought, with a hurt that clenched my heart. This is a nightmare house, Sundran. An old woman hides in mirrors. The landlady calls me ‘mother-in-law’—can you imagine—me? There are no exits here—I’ve looked. Save me, Sundran. Sundran.
I felt my chest was going to burst. I leaned against the wash basin and all done in, I began to weep. And that was how they found me, weeping, my sarong in a heap around my feet, my breath coming ragged as I strained to breathe.
“You okay, Amma?” Ranjan said.
“Why are you half-naked?” Susheela drawled, speaking in English. “You peed in your sarong again, athai? Tsk, tsk.”
“For God’s sake, madam, stop calling me mother-in-law,” I groaned. Turning my back on Susheela, I grabbed the nice man’s hands. “I can’t find my Sundran. Please sir, I want my brother.”
“Your brother Sundran is dead. Dead for over fifty years.” Susheela said.
“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” I yelled, refusing to wipe away the hot tears that stung my eyes.
“I’ll cover all the mirrors, Amma. You won’t see the old woman again. Promise.” Ranjan said.
“Come, let’s get you to the shower, athai. You’ll be clean in no time.” Susheela’s voice was soft.
The next morning, freshly showered once again, wearing a crisp cotton sari, ignoring the pain in my chest, I stood in the garden, watching the river lap the edges where earth met water. The river meandered along, almost parallel to the street on the other side. I had lived by the river all my life; first, with my brother Sundran and my father and later, my husband. Not in this house but another, just a few minutes away. I remembered my father yelling at Sundran the moment my typewriter began clacking first thing in the morning. You’re ruining her life. Filling her head with ideas. Writing stories—who’s going to marry her, boy? And Sundran’s retort: Someone who’ll value her brain as well, not just her pretty face. Hah, that turned out pretty well, didn’t it?
Where was that house I grew up in? For a few seconds I peered down the river before shaking my head. That way lies madness, woman. Get a grip. It is not the same river. My house was in Mambang, another town, by another river, in another world, and besides they are dead, all of them.
I’m the keeper of our histories. How else will I keep Sundran alive? Not the others, but Sundran. It was Sundran who had bought my first typewriter, sent my stories to magazines, who had been ecstatic when they got published. Not my father, and later, not my husband. Knowledge had frightened them and learning in a woman had sent them berserk. I remembered the hide and seek we played, as I hid my manuscripts from father and husband, always one step ahead of hands that searched to destroy. Sure, I could have left my husband, but no one ever did such things those days. Besides, where could I have gone? To Sundran? He was gone by then. To my father? He’d have sent me right back to the husband. “Why can’t you be an ordinary wife?” The husband had raged before hitting me. And hitting me and hitting me because I wouldn’t cry. And wouldn’t bend to him. And wouldn’t stop writing. How did those two men look like? I couldn’t remember their faces. I couldn’t remember my husband’s name.
I thought of the large shadowy patches in my mind, like shrouds that leaped and jeered at me just beyond my reach. Did shrouds leap? I didn’t know. They danced more erratically now, usurping more of my memories. Someone, a neighbour maybe, must have reported to Ranjan and he came one morning to Mambang, locked up my house and took me to live with him.
I remembered telling him, I can’t stay with you, son. Your wife will drive me crazy. I thought he’d smile at that. He didn’t but his eyes glinted. Look at it this way, Amma. With any luck, you’ll each drive the other mad. It’s just a matter of who goes under first.
Susheela. That was her name. When he introduced her to me at lunch one day, as the girl he was going to marry, I tried to make her laugh, as if to tell her I was willing to be her friend. She didn’t smile, didn’t laugh. She knew the calories and the nutritional value of the dishes we were having, though. Towards the end of the meal, I remarked, looking directly at Ranjan, Well, that was the nicest plate of shredded glass I’ve ever eaten. I was rude, I know. His face turned pale. Then Susheela said in her flat voice, True. Nice bowl of glass noodles, not shredded glass. Two laps around the school field to burn it all off.
Why he wanted to marry her, I had no idea. I was hurt, to tell the truth, for surely, he could have found someone like me, animated, lively, creative. Why she wanted to marry him was obvious of course. Anybody would have wanted to marry him.
I stood a little longer looking at the river and seeing the shrouds at play, jumping around, yelling in glee. So, this is how it is going to be, I thought. A descent into the relentless. Soon, I won’t recognize Ranjan and Susheela. Will I scream and yell all the time? Or will I smile and be just plain batty? Will I torture these two people till they hate me?
I heard the sound of footsteps behind me and smelt coffee. Ranjan joined me, carrying a mug. He handed it to me, his hand holding mine carefully until I had the mug safely. “Son, promise me if I ever totally lose my marbles, you’ll shoot me.”
“I don’t have a gun, Amma.”
“Oh that’s right, I forgot. Stab me with a knife, then.”
He gave me a glum look. “Don’t know how. Have to practise.”
“Hmm.” I thought for a bit and shook my head. “No, a knife would hurt too much. How about sleeping pills?”
“On top form today, are we, Kamala Balan?” he murmured smiling.
I tried to return the smile but my smile wavered. “So, sleeping pills. Fifty or so should do the trick,” I continued.
Placing his arm around my shoulders, Ranjan led me back to the house. “Fifty pills? I don’t know where to get that many. The pharmacy, you think? Maybe I could forge a prescription. If only I knew one of those drug dealers.”
Susheela heard him. “He’ll get them, give them to you and go to jail. That’s what you want? He’s fifty-two years old; won’t last a week in jail, not with those dodgy knees. How about jumping into the river, athai? It’s just two minutes from here.”
“Gee, thanks, I’ll keep it in mind.” I grimaced.
“Susheela,” Ranjan sighed.
“I feel as if chunks of my memories are wrapped in shrouds and I can’t get to them. I saw them dancing just now.” My voice was low but Susheela heard me and pounced on my words. “That’s why athai, I say you need time alone—to reflect, to remember—and who knows, maybe even to write once again. The nursing home will be ideal. Just for a month, see? Until we come back from Europe. Go on, give it a chance.”
“Susheela,” Ranjan said.
“It’s not fair, Ranjan. We planned this trip for ages. Three weeks in Europe. I’ve shopped for it, dreamed of it and now when we’re about to leave, you say we can’t. Not fair, you know.”
“I can’t leave my mother. Not now.”
“You’d better go with her, son. Or she’ll moan and whine till the day you die.”
“I’m not whining.”
“Of course, you are,” I snapped. “God knows how you teach your students. You probably nag and moan and whine at them till they mug like mad, pass their exams…do anything to get you off their backs.”
“You could come with us, Amma,” Ranjan said hurriedly. “We could do Europe together, all three of us.”
Susheela’s mouth dropped open. I grinned. “Good idea. She’ll do nothing but shop all day and we will have to tag along to each store, one after another, until I die of ennui. Good thinking, son.”
“You horrid, dreadful woman! You ruin everything. I wish you’d never come to stay with us.” Susheela turned to Ranjan. “I can’t do this, Ranjan. I have a right to my life. A. Happy. Peaceful. Life.”
I listened to her going on at it till I was bored. I raised my eyes and there he was, sitting in a small photograph on the wall. “I hope you are happy now, old man. Everything is your fault.”
“Who are you talking to, Amma?”
“Him. My father.”
“No Amma. He’s my father.”
“Oh, he’s your father too?” I gazed at Ranjan with wonder. Silence. Then, Susheela took my arm. “Come, athai. Breakfast. Idli and tomato chutney. I’ll give you your medication after that. The number of pills you and your son take, you could open your own pharmacy. Two sickly people. Oh my God.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll share the pills with you and you can join the club.”
It was a good breakfast and I did feel bad teasing Susheela, so I agreed to visit the Florence Nightingale Nursing Home—just to have a look, mind. Susheela was ecstatic. Her face actually grew animated. “It’s barely five minutes by car. We’ll leave right away, after we’re done with breakfast.” She couldn’t wait. It wounded me.
“This is the end, then,” I said. “A lifetime fighting to keep my own voice, trying to transcend the blasted stupidity of people who had all the power over me, and in the end, every single thing gets reduced to black holes in my mind and a deluxe room in the Florence Nightingale Nursing Home. With an attached bath. The end.”
“That’s not the end,” Susheela looked up from her plate. “Death is the end,” she announced. I tried, I really tried but no, I couldn’t bite down the wasp in my tongue. “You would have got along famously with my father and my husband. They were just as literal.”
“No, Amma. You don’t get to say that to her.” Ranjan’s voice was firm.
“That’s all right, Ranjan,” Susheela said. “Let her say what she wants. I can be magnanimous.”
“Because I’m leaving?”
“Exactly.” Susheela smiled but her eyes were moist.
“What an irony,” I remarked. “My mind is going and I don’t know how to put an end to it all.” I took a deep breath. “So, family, here I am, a once famous award-winning writer, with dozens of stories to my name.” I stopped. Susheela was rolling her eyes.
“What?” I asked her.
“You’ve written a grand total of thirteen stories, athai. You won a magazine award at seventeen for being the most promising teen writer but your last two stories came out fifty-three years ago, just after you got married. After that—nothing. Nada. Nil. Rien. Nichts. Nyet.” Yes, she was certainly going to Europe, I could see.
I stared at her. Whatever else she did, my daughter-in-law did not tell lies. “I’m not a famous writer?”
Susheela shook her head, steadfastly refusing to look at Ranjan, who was sitting next to me and making all kinds of frantic gestures at her.
“Oh.” There was silence for a while. I did not know what to say. My chest was hurting again.
“You told me the most wonderful stories when I was growing up, Amma,” Ranjan said. You were always telling me stories, and not just at bedtime. You’d be grinding rice for thosai—you remember the stone grinder—humongous granite wasn’t it—from the Neolithic Age probably—and I’d be helping you and listening to all the stories that sprang as if fully formed from inside you. You were a natural teller of stories, Amma.”
“Why didn’t I write them down?”
“You tried. You wrote and wrote every day, but they didn’t come out so well. You kept tearing up the paper and trying again and again, getting more and more angry each time. And then…there was Appa…if he found your stories, he burned them…and there’d be a fight.”
“So, only two stories after I got married? Nothing else after that?” I asked Ranjan.
His face was kind. “No, Amma.”
I felt an infinite sadness creep over me. So, my memory was a traitor too, just like Sundran who died, taking away almost everything that was of value in my life. “Tell me,” I asked, hesitant, “Did your father ever beat me?”
Ranjan’s face was bleak. After a while he whispered, “Not after I was old enough—to stop him.”
“I remember that.” I squeezed my son’s hand. “I remember all of that. Even as a child, you’d jump on him and grab his hand that was going to hit me and place it on your head. He could never hurt you.” I was silent with the remembering. “He said I diminished him. Took away his manhood.”
Ranjan reached out and touched my face. “You were no good for each other. Marriage for life—it was a prison sentence—for him too, Amma.”
I was unwilling to concede that. “We lived in different spaces in the same house, but everywhere I went, you could cut the rage with a knife.”
“You. Could. Have. Left. Him.” Susheela spoke to the chutney bowl, her eyebrows arched, till they almost reached her hairline.
“You didn’t do divorce those days, Susheela!” I protested. “You just put up with it.”
“Yeah, right.” This time, Susheela’s eyes bored into mine. “Sure.”
I swallowed hard. I glanced at Ranjan. He was still gesturing to his wife to shut up. Susheela’s eyes never left me. “All right, all right, I was a coward, okay?” I admitted. “I didn’t know where to go, what to do. Sundran was dead. My father would have sent me back to the husband. And I had my son.”
“So you put up with it and he put up with it every single day,” Susheela said, tilting her head at Ranjan. “You didn’t think of that, did you? So now you know why we chose not to have children.”
“Susheela, no!” Ranjan closed his eyes.
I felt as if a hand had pushed me deep into water and relentless, kept me there. I struggled to breathe. “What’s she saying?” I turned to Ranjan. “You didn’t want to have children? Because of your father and me? Ranjan!”
Ranjan looked at me. I searched his face. There was no anger in it, just acceptance. “Every single time when the three of us were in a room together, when we were eating or watching TV, I would be in a state, waiting for one of you to start yelling to begin a fight. Then I had to watch out that he didn’t hit you or you didn’t cut him with your tongue or smash too many plates and when the noise rose higher and higher, I would run around trying to push you out of the room or get Appa away from you.
“I couldn’t bear to have children in case I put them through the same thing.”
Each word he said fell like a stone on my heart. I thought I would collapse with the pain. I gulped for air. “You were the one person in my life who kept me sane, Ranjan,” I cried. “I would have given my life for you without a second thought over and over again…and all the time, all the bloody freaking time…Oh God,” I covered my head with my hands. “You were a child…What kind of monsters were we?”
“Don’t go there, Amma. It’s in the past.” His voice became terse.
“But you were a child, Ranjan!” I couldn’t keep the horror from my voice. “Your father and I, we never thought…we hated each other. All we thought about was how we could hurt each other. It sustained us,” I spluttered. “All through the marriage, it was the hate that made it bearable. We never thought about you.”
“Hush, hush, no more of that, Amma. Give it a rest. I loved you and I loved Appa—separately.”
“Still,” I could not let it rest. “I didn’t know.”
“Stop it.” He rounded on me. “How could you not know? My earliest memories—you know what they are—not of a teddy bear or toys or kisses—My earliest memories—you yelling at him, him hitting you, you falling on the ground and me, me, jumping on you and covering you with my body. You know how old I was?” He rasped at me. “Maybe two, maybe three…a freaking kid, that’s all I know. I don’t think I knew to talk. I remember crying though.”
He was quiet for a while. “A freaking kid with the most self-absorbed, most selfish arses as parents. And I loved you. Now, give it a rest please.”
I did not open my mouth. What was there to say? Susheela, quiet for all of ten seconds, shrugged, “I was okay with not having kids. Get enough of them in school. Don’t need to live with them at home.” She let off a big sigh. “And now, people,” she got up from her chair. “I’m going to get dressed. One of us has to impress the matron of Florence Nightingale and it’s not going to be either of you.”
We watched her flounce off. My mind was clear. The shrouds were gone for the moment. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, son.”
“Me too, Amma.”
I looked at my beautiful boy. Suddenly it was urgent to tell him I hadn’t always been that horrid self-centred woman; that once I used to laugh and sing and dance but the words came out broken and disjointed although they were clear in my mind. He hushed me again. We sat without speaking. Then Ranjan pushed his chair closer to mine. Presently, he asked, “He died of a fever, didn’t he?” I knew who he meant. Rather to my astonishment, my lips trembled and I began to weep. “Just a bit of fever, that was all and the next morning Sundran was dead. Dead! He was bloody twenty-six!” I howled. “I wouldn’t let them take him. I held on to his body and screamed when they tried to pull me away.” I touched the tears on my cheeks. “They had to prise me away from him. Then my father refused to wait till the mourning was over. He got me married almost immediately.”
“Why on earth?”
“It was the letter from the university, see. University of Malaya. I had a place to read English and he was afraid I would go.” I covered my face with my hands, trying to mask the sound of my sobs, now loud and wild. I couldn’t control them.
Ranjan got up from his chair. He knelt down and put his arms around me.
“I can’t believe I’m crying over something that happened more than fifty years ago!” I tried to laugh. “How crazy is that?” He held me without speaking. “After all this time, it still has the power.” I struck my breast. “to annihilate me.”
We held each other in silence before Ranjan stood up. “Blasted knees.” He sat back on his chair.
“I never wept for your father,” I said. “When they brought him home from hospital for the funeral, I couldn’t cry. Your grandfather wept—like a baby. And you. I—I was thinking, I’m free, I’m free, I’m free and it was like a shard of ice in my heart because by then, I couldn’t write anymore. Everything was gone except the hate.” I looked at my son. “And now when I’m about to die.” He shook his head. I told him: “I’m not afraid of death, Ranjan.”
“No. Just a gateway, isn’t it?”
“Yes. And then—rebirth—and a new adventure. No, death isn’t scary; it’s my journey towards it.” I thought for a bit. “I’m terrified of not remembering anymore. That I can’t fill all the gaps in my memories. And that it will get worse and far worse. I feel as if I’m standing on quicksand and the ground is shifting as we speak.” I felt my smile turn bitter. “Oh God, how banal. The utter bloody banality of it all.”
“Kamala Balan!” Ranjan leaned across and kissed me. “Even if you went totally gaga, you would never be banal! Trust me.”
Susheela was still getting dressed when Ranjan went upstairs to collect his car keys and wallet. Left alone, I walked about, my hand pressed hard on my breast. The pain was spreading; I thought I would keel over from it. I couldn’t breathe. I needed fresh air. I moved as rapidly as I could towards the front door, past a mirror in the hallway and had almost reached the door when I paused and doubled back. The woman in the mirror looked back at me, her face reddened and swollen like mine. A raw guttural grief tore through my lungs. I touched the mirror with both my hands. The other woman responded and for a few moments, we were both wrapped in a silence that bound us together and then released me completely. When I stumbled out of the house a little later, I found myself in the garden. The outside felt different. The road was gone, the river was broader, and my old house from Mambang peeped from around the corner. I stood still, focusing all my thoughts on it, willing it to stay and not disappear. At that moment, the old shrouds appeared, mocking as usual, coming closer and closer, their black skeletal fingers waving, reaching out to pluck out more pieces of my brain.
They blocked my view of my house. I pushed them away; instead, they pressed closer. I pushed them away again but they grew stronger, denser and I felt a huge dread engulf me. Sundran! Sundran! I cried out and then—there he was, standing by the river few yards away, smiling at me looking exactly as I’d known him all my life, dressed in khaki pants and a shirt with the sleeves folded up. Leather shoes on his feet and a grin on his face and his hair just a little long, needing a barber’s touch. All at once, I knew he was real and all the shrouds, mere figments of imagination. At that knowing, they vanished.
“Kamala!” Sundran beckoned to me. I shook my head. “Where did you go, huh, all these years? I looked everywhere for you, you know.”
His face turned sober. “I had to go, Kamala. It wasn’t my choice. You want to come now? With me?” He beckoned again. I wasn’t having any of it. “All these years, you’re gone, then you come back and you expect me to just come running? Nah. You don’t know what happened to me, Sundran.”
His face as he gazed on me was so loving it tore my heart. “I do know, rajathi.” Rajathi. He was the only person to call me that, his little princess. I didn’t know how much I’d missed that simple loving.
“You were not there to make it different, Sundran,” I cried. “Where did you go where did you go where did you go?”
He held his arms out without speaking.
“You’re going away again, aren’t you?” I asked. He smiled at me and it was as if the sun came out at that moment. “Not without you, rajathi!” When I heard him, the pain in my chest lifted. He held his arms out again and nodded. Laughing, I ran towards him, my steps sure-footed like a young girl’s. Somewhere, I heard a man cry out and a woman shouting, “No, Ranjan, don’t run. You can’t run, your dodgy knees!”
Ranjan did not run. He strode briskly towards his mother. She was rattling the padlocked gates trying to push them open. He heard her sob, “Wait for me Sundran! Don’t you dare disappear again, you hear?” When he reached her, he touched her lightly on her shoulder and called, “Kamala Balan!” She turned around, her face drenched, though with tears or sweat, he could not say. When she saw who it was, a smile of complete happiness lit up her face. Her arms went around him and as she slumped against him, Ranjan knew that neither smile nor embrace was for him.