[Short listed by the CBC-Quebec Writers Federation Literary Competition and first published in In Other Words. New English Writing from Quebec, Edited by Claude Lalumière, Véhicule Press, 2008]
A huge black crow was doing a balancing act on the metal railing enclosing the terrace. It held a shiny object in its beak. Usha chose that moment to make an appearance with a basket of laundry on her hip, obstructing Mummy’s view. Her silver anklet hit the edge of a patio chair and startled the crow. The bird opened its beak, cawed, and flew away. The spoon clattered to the floor. Usha bent down to pick it.
–Memsahib, memsahib, here it is, Baba’s silver spoon! I told you I hadn’t stolen it.
Mangala released the cuff imprisoning her mother’s flaccid arm and let out a subliminal hiss. It was no use. With such a ruckus the sphygmometer would give a false reading again.
Quoth the raven, nevermore!
Mangala turned to stare at her mother. The old woman’s pupils were dilated and her lips quivered. Could it be possible? Had her mother tried to say something after so many months of silence? Spittle drooled from her mother’s lips. Mangala patted her hand, hoisted herself from the chair, and made her way to the kitchen to deal with the matter of the purloined spoon. She then busied herself with lunch.
A shrill sound startled her. Muttering something, she pinched her left thumb and sucked the small drop of blood that oozed from it before it could hit the chopped onions. Usha’s bare feet glided to the front door.
–Memsahib kaha hai?
Mangala wished her husband would stop referring to her as memsahib to the help. The real memsahib was her mother, who after a lifetime in India would not let anyone forget that she was European. Not that it mattered now.
–I’m here darling! Lunch is ready.
They sat down to eat. The fan blades moved lazily over the dining table cooling the lamb korma but not driving the flies away from the food. Lt. Col. K.K. Mehta
swatted a fly and scraped it over the edge of the table till it fell on the floor. He then tore off a piece of chapatti and scooped a juicy piece of lamb and stuffed it in his mouth. Some brown sauce got embedded in his moustache.
–General Kapur wants to send me back to the border.
Mangala’s lemonade glass hit the table with a thud.
–What about Mummy? I can’t look after her alone. And Anjani is expecting and Kabir will finally return to Delhi.
–It will only be for a few months, darling, till the war is over. Besides, you are a doctor and you have the servants to help you.
–Yes, but what about my practice? I will lose my patients to the other doctors at the clinic.
–Manni, please be reasonable. There is nothing much I can do for Mummy. Besides, my country, our country, needs me and I’m in line for a promotion.
Mangala pushed her plate away and called Usha to clear the table.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
–Did you hear that, Kaykay?
–Get a grip on yourself, Mangala. You have to accept that your mother had a major stroke and will never speak again. Ever!
–But the literature is full of examples of partial, even full recovery after a few months.
–K.K. Mehta got up and stormed out. The brass mobile hanging near the entrance tinkled.
The buzzer rang again. It was Sumitra.
The large swarthy woman walked straight into the memsahib’s room and looked at her charge. The afternoon sun highlighted her greying hair, making it look golden again. She lifted the thin cotton bedspread and removed the old woman’s clothing. Pouring some coconut oil on her back she rubbed her body vigorously. First she turned her on one side and then her stomach and then the other side. She wiped off the excess oil with a clean towel and combed her hair. She then propped her up with some pillows and sat herself on the floor. Reaching for one of her limp hands she started crooning a lullaby that her own mother used to sing to her as a child back in Kochi. A few tears trickled down from the memsahib’s green eyes and landed on their locked hands.
Mon père, j’ai pas besoin de me confesser. Le péché n’est plus ce qu’il était.
Mangala pulled the door curtain open, poked her face in, and carefully closed it again.
By tea time the room was bathed in fierce orange and red. Several langurs jumped up and down the peepul tree in front of the terrace. The silhouette of one of these large black-faced monkeys partially blocked the sun. Mangala walked into her mother’s room and set the ice-cream dish on the table. She sat by her mother’s bedside and spooned some softened ice cream into her mouth. A thin trickle of chocolate dripped from one side of her lips. Suddenly, the old woman shuddered.
Why don’t you two just kill me off! I can’t take it any more. God, I don’t want to die!
After taking her mother’s pulse, Mangala crushed a pill into her melted ice cream and spoon-fed her again.
–Take some rest, mother.
The chattering birds in the peepul tree woke up the household. Usha came in with her morning tea and some biscuits. She set the tea tray down and fetched the bedpan, but it was too late. A dark stain had already spread around the woman’s shrivelled form. So she turned the memsahib to one side, rolled the soiled bed sheet under her, then turned her to the other side and replaced it with a clean one.
Mangala walked in while this operation was underway.
–I’ll take over, Usha, thanks.
That’s a good girl, Manni. Do potty and drink your Horlicks!
The doorbell rang again.
–Memsahib, it is the young Baba. He’s home.
Mangala rushed to greet her son.
–Kabir, give your mother a hug. We weren’t expecting you until next month.
–Mother, I just came to visit Naniji before I get sent back to sea again. They are not posting me to Delhi after all.
Who is that dark man with you? I know him. It is my husband.
–Hare Ram. Kaykay, Mummy is talking! Kabir is here. Come quickly!
The whole household ran to Mummy’s room.
–Naniji, it is me, Kabir, your grandson. Don’t you remember me?
She paid no attention to them. Something outside the window caught her eye. The morning glories draped the terrace railing. Several sparrows, a cardinal, and a crow fought over a few chapatti crumbs. A translucent gecko zigzagged its way up the terrace wall making a dragonfly whiz off. Last night’s langur, its tail curled around the railing, stared at the old woman. She stared back. Their eyes locked.
–What are you looking at, Naniji?
The old woman turned to face her grandson. Her lips curled up ever so slightly.
He has come to take me home. Your grandfather…