On the day my aunt dropped Mariamma’s baby, the man from Batu Pahat had arrived on one of his visits. He’d been sitting in his usual seat when the baby had squirmed out of my aunt’s arms and plummeted headfirst towards the pale blue tiles.
I watched the baby blink while he fell, first two slow, surprised blinks, and then a flurry of quick ones, as if invisible fingers were brushing against his eyelids.
I heard his breath, calm and steady as a yogi’s.
Six inches above the floor he smiled, and his soft belly shook with unlaughed laughter.
Upside down, his smile was a sad clown mouth with only three teeth in it.
Just before he hit the tiles his sister began to scream.
“Amma, pullai!” my aunt gasped at the moment he landed with that nameless sound—not a splat, not a crack, but something in between.
My aunt put both her hands to her mouth but did not close her eyes. “Amma, pullai,” she repeated over and over again, rocking softly back and forth. Oh mother, the child; oh mother, the child; oh mother, the child. But the baby’s mother was not there to hear her, and would not be until the next morning, because she was in town working the streets and alleys, picking up a lorry driver here and a ditch digger there, adjusting her caked makeup and her red nylon saree in the windows of closed shops between clients.
In my aunt’s house the baby lay still on the blue floor, his eyes half closed, his unnaturally long eyelashes still fluttering like
butterflies. He didn’t cry. He didn’t even whimper. Inside his slightly open mouth we could just see his fat pink tongue, wet and already as loose as it would be for the rest of his long, unencumbered life.
I felt myself sink slowly down onto my knees; I feared my breath would catch fire in my throat. Come back, come back, I thought. Come back into your head, look out through your eyes, pull your tongue in, for without you my aunt is nothing.
But then the man from Batu Pahat nodded, as if he’d come today just to witness this moment. “God works in mysterious ways,” he said. “God knows everything.” My aunt looked sharply up at him, and he did not avoid her eyes. He nodded and smiled a tired smile. Then he swirled his glass of coconut water so that all the translucent slivers of young coconut rose from the bottom, and leaning his head back, he downed the whole glassful in one noisy gulp.
* * *
Eight years before my aunt dropped Mariamma’s son on her unforgiving kitchen tiles, Mariamma’s husband, Ponniah, had built the hut at the end of the compound out of discarded plywood planks and dried nipah fronds. I had been living with my uncle and aunt for just a few months when he came to ask my uncle’s permission to build the hut. My uncle recognized him from his Sunday morning walks to the coffee shop to buy roti canai for our breakfast: Mariamma and her husband were among the ragged crowd of thirty or so squatters in the lane beside the coffee shop. On clear nights, they slept on flattened cardboard boxes in the lane; when it rained they huddled in the five-foot-ways of the shops. Even to me, a child of six, it was clear from the women’s makeup and dress that they were different from my mother and my aunt. Their voices were coarse, their mouths large and bright. They wore their hair loose and walked up and down in front of the toddy shop and the Chinese roadside stalls all day, swinging their hips and casting coy glances at the raddled men drooping in front of their drinks. These were the external differences: what they added up to, I had no words to explain until Ponniah had come and gone that day.
“How can you let him build his hut inside our gate?” my aunt said to my uncle, shaking her head in disbelief. “Don’t you have any common sense? And here we’ve just taken Nirmala into our household. What kind of environment will this be for a young girl to grow up in?”
“They’ll be all the way down there, just next to the gate,” my uncle said, sitting down at the kitchen table and unfolding his newspaper. “There’s no reason she should even have to see them. And it’ll be a good arrangement for us. All the gardening and outside work all he’s agreed to do for us in return for building his hut there only. No need to pay him, nothing.”
“Don’t you know,” my aunt said then, “what filthy people they are? The men are all drunkards and the women sell their bodies to the highest bidder on the roadside. This type of people you have let into our compound!”
So that was it: the women sold their bodies to the men in the toddy shop and the roadside stalls. When I lay down to imagine this transaction, I saw sequined vamps from the Hindi films my uncle watched late at night after I was supposed to have gone to bed. I saw them in conical bras and knee-high boots, supine and heavy-lidded under drooling, mustachioed men. I felt unprotected and alone then, as if the thin walls of my uncle’s house could not keep out the sordid world much longer. I wanted to pack my little suitcase and take the next bus home to my parents’ house in the village, but I didn’t have enough money for the bus ticket and I knew my mother would be furious to find me at her doorstep. I was lucky to be here in my uncle’s house, lucky to have my school uniform and books paid for and to be driven to school every morning in my uncle’s air-conditioned Ford Escort.
My aunt was still young when they adopted me, and blindingly beautiful. She’d been Miss India before my uncle had met her on a business trip in Bangalore, and whenever her name came up in a gathering of our relatives, her looks were the first thing people mentioned. “Like an actress,” they said. “Like an English painting.” “And her eyes!” someone would always remark, for my aunt’s hazel eyes were a wonder among all our black and brown ones; she was the only light-eyed person most of us had ever seen in real life. “Wah wah, like a tiger’s eyes only, makes you want to look and look at her. Must be some Kashmiri blood in her family.” But eventually the gathering would come around, in quieter tones, to her failure to produce a child. “Such a pity ...” they would begin, and then their voices would trail off, and after a few moments of silence someone else would sigh and conclude, “Even that kind of beauty also cannot bring you happiness in the end.” Rumor grew lush around her barrenness: some said that she had had cancer as a teenager; others that she had had an abortion during her dissolute beauty-queen days in Bombay; or that her mother had broken a vow to the Mother Goddess and been repaid for it with the withering of her beautiful daughter’s womb. Whatever the truth, my uncle had convinced her to adopt me as a last resort, after seven childless years of marriage had left her pale and silent and unable to drag herself out of bed in the mornings. I knew that if my parents had had two sons, my aunt would have taken the second instead of me; I knew that whenever her eyes fell on me she was reminded that any child of her own would have been fairer and prettier, would perhaps have inherited her dimples, her hazel eyes, her fine, high nose. But still, like my parents, I was grateful. I was all the more grateful because I knew how different things could have been, how random and precarious my good fortune.
I must have been better than nothing, after all, because before long, even my dark-skinned, black-eyed presence began to have the desired effect on my aunt’s spirits. The clothes I’d brought from the village were still creased from my suitcase when she began to get out of bed and bathe and dress herself in the mornings. One May afternoon I came home from school to discover that she’d sent Cook out to run errands so that she could make our lunch herself. The meal was waiting on the dining table, in a cluster of covered eversilver dishes. My aunt served us both, and we ate together while Lata Mangeshkar sang a love song on the kitchen radio:
Kitna haseen hai yeh ek sapna
(How beautiful this dream is)
Phoolon ke shaher mein hai ghar apna
(In a city of flowers stands our house)
Kya sama hai, tu kahan hai?
(What a world, where are you?)
My aunt was restless and fidgety as a child with a secret, and her eyes were pure gold in the sunlight. “Take another piece of chicken,” she urged me. “Look,” she cried a few minutes later, lifting a whole fish roe out of a dish of curry with the serving spoon, “I saved the roe for you!” It was all a game, of course, because in my uncle’s house there was never any want, and no treat was so rare that it had to be saved for someone. But I was quick, and I learned to play it. It put the dimples back in my aunt’s cheeks. It dulled the sharp tin edges of my homesickness.
After a few months my aunt took to brushing my hair before bed and tucking me in. When she’d turned the lights out she sat on the edge of my bed and made up elaborate shadow plays,
her hands as silvery in the moonlight as the shadows they cast were black.
Look, she’d say, here’s the frightened rabbit.
And here comes the wolf to gobble him up—
—but the rabbit runs away, just in time, hooray!
The bat swoops down from the sky.
The moths fly up towards the moon.
Look, here is Hanuman the Monkey God.
Here is Yama the Demon.
Here is handsome Krishna with his flute.
She left my bedroom only when I’d fallen asleep watching her hands, and sometimes not even then; on some nights she fell asleep next to me, and I woke in the middle of the night to see her lying straight as a fairy-tale princess next to me, her hands folded neatly on her stomach, her mouth turned faintly upwards. In the mornings, she and my uncle no longer spoke to each other, but only to me. “Your Periamma asked Cook to put an extra egg in your appam,” he’d say without looking at her, “so eat up.” “Faster-faster drink your Ovaltine,” she’d say. “Your Periappa is waiting to drive you to school.”
“Your aunt,” my uncle would say almost every morning
as he drove me to school, “is so happy to have you. It is a wonderful thing you have done for her, to come here and be like
And so the weeks passed, and each day we were a little happier, until the day Mariamma moved into the hut her husband had built at the bottom of the garden.
The minute my aunt laid eyes on Mariamma in the distance, she stuck her jaw out and began to chew on the inside of her cheek. “Hmm,” she said, “even in a heap of rubbish sometimes you can find a diamond.” What she meant was that despite her gaudy lipstick and her vermillion fingernails Mariamma was beautiful, so beautiful that she glowed, and seemed to mock the squalor of her surroundings, and looked like an angel that someone had plucked out of heaven and dressed like a whore for a cruel prank. Her features were as fine as my aunt’s; her skin was even purer, white and delicate as the skin that forms on fresh cow’s milk. Her hair was as thick and glossy as if she had been fed on meat and butter all her life, and not on the cheapest rice the shops sold. Between her choli and her saree her waist was as narrow and supple as a rope. But most unusual of all were Mariamma’s eyes, which were a clear, light green, wide and wary as a stray cat’s, almost emerald in the sunlight. The first time she came to the back door to ask if my aunt had an old pail to give her for her washing, we all caught our breath: how strange it was to have two light-eyed women on the same street! After she left my aunt picked a crumb from her sarong, plucked a loose thread from her sleeve, and murmured, “Who knows which English soldier the woman’s grandmother banged in India? You know what, this type of people. One thing you can be sure is that she comes from a nice long line of loose women.”
My tender heart, still racing for Mariamma with her milk skin and her green eyes, lurched and tumbled through me, falling faster and faster and growing older as it fell, until, when it hit the bottom, it cracked open like an old coconut. My aunt, my dimpled aunt who saved me ripe mangoes and fish roe, was only human.
Like a tiny, sharp-toothed fish, reality began to nibble at the edges of my fairy-tale world. My uncle began to come home later and later at night. Sometimes I heard his car on the gravel in the middle of the night; more often I heard nothing at all, but he was there in the morning, shaved, showered, his hair slicked flat on his head, when I went downstairs for breakfast. Neither he nor my aunt said a word about where he’d been; they only pressed me to eat more. But when we were alone in the Ford Escort he no longer told me how happy I’d made my aunt, and as the car moved down the driveway I could only look at the hut Ponniah had built and wonder which lay waiting at the bottom of the garden: good or evil, or both?
That year the rainy season was long and fierce. At four o’clock every afternoon the black sky burst open like a wound, and the water drummed so hard on the metal awnings over the porch that we could not hear each other’s voices inside the house. Only the whistle of the afternoon teakettle pierced the rain’s roar, but though Cook put tea and biscuits on the table at half past four, regular as clockwork, my aunt stood transfixed at the sitting room window, squinting into the storm.
“Don’t know where your Periappa is,” she said to me every day. “He’s going to get trapped in this rain. He’s going to get wet and fall sick.”
After the rain cleared she stayed at the window through dusk, watching Ponniah return from the toddy shop and Mariamma set out for her evening’s work.
“Lucky woman actually,” she said one day. “Free as a bird. She can come and go as she chooses, like a man.” A small puff of laughter escaped through her nose. “It’s her husband’s job to sit at home and wonder who she’s lying with. What woman could be luckier than that?”
It was during that rainy season I met the man from Batu
Pahat for the first time. He turned up at the back door one
afternoon in the perfect stillness before the four o’clock storm. His black umbrella hung from the crook of his elbow by its wooden handle.
“Oh, it’s you,” my aunt said when she saw him. “He’s gone out, I don’t know where. I don’t know what time he’ll be back. You can sit and wait with me if you like.”
“So sure you are,” he said, sliding his feet out of his worn leather sandals and taking a seat in the red armchair by the kitchen window, “that I’ve come to see him only and no one else. What if it’s you I want to talk to? And who is this young lady?”
“Surely you’ve heard,” said my aunt, “this is his sister’s daughter from the village. We’ve taken her in as our own daughter. She’s a good girl. Studies hard and always obeys. Nirmala, say hello to Batu Pahat Uncle.”
I smiled shyly at him.
“Ohoho,” he said, and his eyes latched narrowly onto mine. “Very good, very good. It is a great thing to bring a child into one’s house.”
At four thirty Cook put the tea and biscuits on the table, and Batu Pahat Uncle, who had sat with his eyes closed in the red armchair all that time, opened his eyes and said to my aunt: “Come away from the window for a few minutes and sit and drink your tea. What is so interesting outside in this rain?”
My aunt did not answer, but she sat down and took three sips of her tea. When she went upstairs to take her afternoon bath Batu Pahat Uncle shuffled over to the window. No one was about in the garden. Mariamma’s hut looked small and brown in the storm, like a farm animal left outside.
“Eh Nirmala,” Batu Pahat Uncle said, “whose hut is that? Your Periappa built it for Watchman, is it?”
“No. Some people live there.”
“People? Which people?”
“They are not good people.”
Batu Pahat Uncle laughed a wide, toothless laugh. “Are you a parrot or a girl-child?” he said. “So nicely you repeat what you hear, instead of a nose you should have a beak! Instead of arms you should have wings!” Then he dragged the red armchair over to the window and sat there looking out for the rest of the evening, until dinner was served.
* * *
Batu Pahat Uncle returned to my uncle’s house many times that year, always showing up in the afternoon, always with his black umbrella hanging from his elbow. My uncle soon learned to sense his arrivals from a distance, for on those days his car often pulled into the driveway at six o’clock sharp, as it used to when I’d first come to live in his house. And for as long as Batu Pahat Uncle sat in our kitchen, he consumed all our attention, so that it seemed only natural that my aunt and uncle should not speak to each other, so busy were they trying to serve their guest, so commanding was his presence.
No one remembered exactly how Batu Pahat Uncle was related to us; the adults referred to him simply as the Batu Pahat chap. The objectives of his visits were not always clear. Usually he was on his way somewhere else, happy just to sit down under the ceiling fan and drink a tall glass of coconut water. When my aunt pressed him to stay for lunch or tea, he’d pull himself to his feet, sling over his shoulder the Good Morning towel he brought everywhere with him, and make his excuses. My uncle would help him into the yellow Ford Escort and drive him to the bus station to continue his meandering journey up and down the
But at other times, Batu Pahat Uncle came to share with us his latest philosophical and theological insights. Then he’d stay for hours, gulping down food and drink in between bouts of wild, impassioned talk. If people would only stop eating eggs, he said once, there would be no more wars. Eating eggs was worse than eating meat, because an egg was the essential germ of life, and in it lay all the promise of the universe. To commit an act of violence against such a thing—to crack it, cook it, shove it down one’s gullet—was to sully mankind’s collective karma. “Violence is like gas,” he said. “It builds up. It doesn’t just stop there. It has to go somewhere. All these wars. India-Pakistan, Iran-Iraq, Lebanon. All because of egg-eating.”
Another time he advised my uncle to erect a large brass statue of a rat outside the front gate to keep rats away from the house. “Daily-daily you must garland the statue with jasmine and marigolds,” he pronounced in between mouthfuls of curd rice. “Polishing all two-three times weekly will be sufficient. If you respect the rats, the rats also will respect you.”
But each time we were all ready to dismiss him as a madman, he startled us with flashes of wisdom. In August he correctly predicted that the Sikhs would kill Indira Gandhi before the end of the year: “She is a foolish woman,” he said. “This side she puts guns in the hands of the Bhaiyis, that side she spits in their faces. This year itself what has to come to her will come.”
* * *
When Batu Pahat Uncle was not there, my aunt stirred less and less from the kitchen window. She spoke only to report on Mariamma’s activities now: “Oh looklooklook,” she said one evening, clapping her hands, “a new saree she has. Bright green to match her eyes. Before she only had red sarees. Someone must have paid her in kind instead of cash. Good for her.” And another time: “Look, she has brought home a live chicken, man. Must be doing quite well these days. Building the family fortune. Maybe she got a few extra clients last night. She and her husband can celebrate with chicken briyani.”
Then one day my aunt noticed something that seized her voice and crumpled her face. She turned from the window and sat down at the kitchen table. She ran her hands up and down her thighs, and for a few moments the only sound in the universe was the rasping of her palms against her cotton sarong, the sound of something old and dry and ready to shed its tired skin.
“More tea, Maddam?” asked Cook at last. My aunt did not answer. Cook hovered close over her, as if she were waiting to clear her plate or wipe her mouth.
Finally my aunt looked up at her with a strange, swollen smile. Her eyes were huge and glassy. “Have you noticed, Cook?” she said. She turned to me. “Nirmala? Our neighbor-lady is expecting a baby. Hmm. Who knows, Nirmala, maybe it’s your own cousin sister. You can sew the baby a nightie. You can buy it booties.”
Cook scurried wordlessly away to the kitchen to busy herself with the dinner preparations, but my aunt was undeterred. “After all,” she continued, “this side that woman comes home, that side your Periappa comes home, no? Who is to say he wasn’t the one who bought her the green saree? Why not? Why should he look further, when right here in his own compound is a woman who’ll spread her legs for a few dollars?”
I ate a stale Nestle biscuit, and another, and another, and said nothing.
For nine months I watched Mariamma’s belly grow with a sick feeling in my stomach. At night I lay awake thinking of it. My aunt no longer came in to make shadows on my bedroom wall.
On the morning Mariamma’s oldest daughter was born, Batu Pahat Uncle turned up at the back door. I was having breakfast with my uncle and aunt.
“I think so I heard a baby crying in that hut,” he said, looking at Cook. “Please put extra milk in my coffee. Acid problems I am having these days.”
“Acid problems?” my uncle said. “You should eat more regular meals. A man your age should not be eating a whole goat one day for lunch and then nothing for three days.”
Batu Pahat Uncle took a sip of his milky coffee and sloshed it around in his toothless mouth before replying. “That is not the thing,” he finally said, “These acid problems are all caused by other people’s jealousy, I tell you. They cannot see what they’ve got; they only see what I have. People are like that. What I always say is, if people are jealous of you, drink warm milk and eat three bananas for breakfast. Four is too many; four will give you diarrhoea. But three will nicely subdue the burning-churning caused by other people’s jealousy. You all have any bananas in the house?”
Cook brought three rastali bananas and placed them before him, and he ate them one after the other, peeling each one completely before breaking it into bite-sized chunks.
In the years that followed it seemed that Mariamma was always pregnant. Her belly swelled and shrank and swelled again under her saree; she stayed home at night for months at a time. As soon as her oldest daughter was comfortable on her feet, Mariamma sent her to our back door to ask if she could gather the half-rotten mangoes that had fallen under the tree.
“Veedula thapaadu illai,” the girl lisped. There’s no food
“Sure,” my aunt said, her eyes running up and down the length of the child, taking in her matted hair, her wide, crusty eyes, the thin lips that struggled to cover her overbite. “Collect all the mangoes you want, just don’t touch the tree with your dirty hands.” The girl thanked her and ran off, but the second time she came my aunt interrupted her greeting with a question.
“Wonh appa yaru?” Who’s your father?
I was sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework, and I saw the child pause and blink slowly at my aunt, as if she knew, young and innocent as she was, that the question was not what it appeared to be. As if the smell of my aunt’s breath, the way she’d leaned forward eagerly, or the crispness of her voice had warned her to raise her defenses. But she didn’t falter, or pout, or draw back from the heat of the question; instead her face settled into a purposeful obtuseness. She stood stubbornly straight and held my aunt’s gaze.
“What’s the matter?” my aunt persisted. “Why are you looking at me like that? I asked you a simple question, isn’t it? Such a big girl, can’t you answer?”
“My father lives in that hut only,” the girl said, pointing at
the nipah roof in the distance. Her face was blunt and brutish as a calf’s.
“Oho,” my aunt said, unsatisfied. For a moment she eyed the child silently, her nostrils flared, and I knew that she was rolling around in her mouth words that might bring tears to the girl’s eyes or send her running home to her mother. It was a childish cruelty, the ugly thrill the playground bully feels as he tightens his grip around his victim’s arm, and it hung in the stuffy kitchen air like a mosquito’s song. Then my aunt sighed and shook her head and said, “Okay then, what do you want?”
As their bellies grew and roared, Mariamma’s children came to ask for summary concessions and kindnesses: for fifty cents in exchange for sweeping the porch; for the feet and necks of the chickens Cook slaughtered in the backyard; for permission to shoot down bats with their catapults in my uncle’s garden. Their father skinned the bats and boiled them in a large iron pot outside the doorway of their hut, and the smell of these stews blew hot and thick through our open back door.
“Chhi,” my aunt would say, pressing a scented tissue to her nose, “these people will eat anything also. No better than the Chinese.”
My aunt’s one consolation seemed to be that Mariamma’s children were all girls. That Mariamma’s womb was so flagrantly fertile was bad enough; to have watched her produce a son would have been intolerable. And so each time one of Mariamma’s daughters came to the back door or was seen gathering fallen mangoes or catapulting bats in the garden, my aunt savored this small comfort.
“Too-too bad that the woman can only bear one daughter after another,” she would say. “For now she can still be proud of producing one child a year, but when it comes time to marry them off then we’ll see. Where are they going to get dowries for all those girls?”
But at other times she proposed her own smirking solutions to the problem. “Wah wah, quite wealthy this family is going to be in a few years,” she said. “One after the other those girls can all follow their mother into the family business. Can pay for their own dowries that way.”
When they came to the door she teased them with her questions, like a cat worrying a mouse it had no intention of eating.
Which one is your father? she’d ask each girl.
Where has your mother gone today? To work? Does she work in an office, then?
If your mother loves you why does she go away every night?
Though I turned away and pretended not to hear her, though Cook shook her head and bustled out of the kitchen, she cast us both sidelong glances after every question. Whenever Batu Pahat Uncle arrived to watch her from his red armchair, she spoke to the girls in a shimmering stage voice, her words turning colorful cartwheels around them. She clapped and hooted like the village clown in a Tamil film; she wrinkled her nose and laughed at her own jokes. Is your father a doctor, lawyer or engineer? she would ask, one hand on a playfully thrust-out hip. What, you don’t know? Oh, that’s a good one! You don’t know!
Tell your mother you shouldn’t have to collect rotten mangoes to eat when your father has three cars and sits in an air-conditioned office all day.
Let me look at you, girls, she’d say when she managed to corner all of them together. No, no, not one of you looks like your mother or the man in the hut. But you don’t look like each other, either. Whom do you look like? Hmm? Run and ask your mother, go!
Batu Pahat Uncle said nothing through these displays, but swirled his coconut water around and around in its glass. When Mariamma’s children had left and my aunt had returned to her sentry post by the window, he spoke as if nothing had happened.
“Kandiah’s son is doing well after his motorcycle accident,” he might murmur. Or standing creakily up and stretching, “Yabbah, how nice it was to sit and have a drink, but now I really must be going.”
* * *
For seven years my aunt kept herself buoyed on a fitful sea of satisfaction by asking Mariamma’s daughters the same questions every afternoon. Just under the surface of that sea lurked the despair of the seven years before I’d arrived: the sleepless nights, the uncombed mornings, the long days awash in aimless tears. Once my presence had been sufficient to keep all these at bay; now she needed her small spurts of revenge, and these filled me with a sulfurous pity. I could not bear to look at my aunt anymore; when Mariamma’s daughters came to the door I looked only at them, at their round, fragile shoulders and their ill-fitting clothes, at the way they held each other’s hands to butt up against a cruelty they could only sense. And so I began to save the small treats I bought myself at school, and to slip them into one or the other’s hand when my aunt wasn’t looking. Once, when the oldest girl was gathering fallen mangoes in the dusk and I happened to be sitting on the porch swing, I walked across the garden, plucked a fresh, perfect fruit off the tree, and handed it to her. And always, when my aunt kept them at the door with her needling, I lowered my eyes and listened with burning ears and loved her still less.
We grew older. I entered secondary school and wore a new uniform. Streaks of silver began to show in my aunt’s hair, and lines spread around her mouth like cracks in parched earth. My uncle acquired reading glasses and—because he sometimes stayed away from home for days—bought a second car and engaged a driver to chauffeur me to and from school in it. Cook developed arthritis and had to resort to buying coconut milk
from the market for our morning appams. Mariamma’s many babies thickened her waist and left dark circles under her bright green eyes.
Then, after five girls, Mariamma’s son was born. Perhaps because he was born during another long, furious rainy season, I half expected Batu Pahat Uncle to turn up on the morning of his birth. But when Ponniah brought his happy news to our house with a tray of celebratory sweetmeats, only Cook and my aunt and I were at home. His thick mustache bristled with pride as he smiled at us through his crooked teeth. “A boy,” he said. “My wife has given birth to a boy.”
“Look at that!” exclaimed Cook, clutching the tray of sweets after he’d left. “How much money they must’ve spent on ghee and sugar to make all these! They’ll have to survive on bats and rotten mangoes for five months just to pay their sundry shop bill.”
A week went by before we saw anyone in Mariamma’s family. Then one Saturday morning the five girls, filthy as ever, trooped to our back door in a little procession. The oldest girl carried the baby, who was freshly bathed and talcum-powdered. He wore only a cloth nappy, and on his forehead his mother had daubed a large, black pottu to protect him from the evil eye.
Close on their heels came Batu Pahat Uncle, wiping his brow with his Good Morning towel, for the sun was already scorching.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Cook when she saw him. “Come in and sit down. These are the girls from that hut over there. Their father asked permission—”
“Yes, yes, I know,” said Batu Pahat Uncle. “I know the whole story about that hut. And what is this now? A new baby?”
Mariamma’s daughters smiled diffidently, and one was so overcome that she hid her face in the neck of the girl standing next to her.
The girls—all five of them—looked nothing like Mariamma; this had always been the one fragment of truth in the terrible story my aunt had invented about them. They had flat noses and thin, unexpressive lips. Two of them had sallow, blotchy skin, and the oldest was as dark as a mangosteen. But the boy she now held had his mother’s pure skin and red mouth, and his eyes, though still an indeterminate color, would clearly be light. In his sister’s arms the boy seemed almost incandescent, like the butter-stealing baby Krishna or the doomed baby Jesus.
“Aunty?” said Mariamma’s oldest daughter. “Aunty enggai?” Aunty, Aunty, echoed her sisters. Where is Aunty? They clustered around the baby, giggling, jostling each other like puppies.
“Aunty is in the living room,” I said. “I’ll go and fetch her.” I turned and walked into the house, and Batu Pahat Uncle sank with a sigh into his red armchair.
When my aunt came to the back door, the girl held the baby aloft as if he were an offering and my aunt a goddess. “Aunty,” she said, “my new little brother. My father said to come and
But my aunt did not take the baby then. “What a handsome boy,” she said, “so fair and chubby.” Her voice was cool and crisp, a voice paddling in the shallows of laughter, the same voice she had always used to ask the girls who their father was or what their mother did for a living. She reached out and stroked the baby’s foot lightly. “What’s his name?”
“His name?” said the oldest girl. “We just call him Thambi, because he’s our only little brother. He doesn’t have a name yet. My father says we should wait until we can take him to
“Your Thambi,” said my aunt, “is the only one who looks like your mother, lucky boy.”
“Isn’t he beautiful?” said one of the other girls.
“Isn’t he just like a doll?” said another. “My mother says, if he sat still and didn’t cry or move, everyone would think he was a doll.”
“A little English doll,” said my aunt, “with his pink cheeks and his green eyes. When you pick him up he’ll open his eyes and when you lie him down he’ll close them.”
The girls giggled, even though none of them had ever seen such a doll.
That day my aunt gave Mariamma’s oldest daughter a clean green five-ringgit note from the jam jar, even though it was the one time she hadn’t asked for anything. “Here,” she said, “tell your father and your mother congratulations, and take good care of the boy.” Your father. Not the man in the hut. Not your mother’s husband. But if the girls noticed this change they said nothing about it. They fell, one after the other, at my aunt’s feet, and then trooped back to their hut.
“That was good,” said Batu Pahat Uncle after the girls had left, “it is good to do charity.”
This small act of compassion seemed to undo my aunt, to snap the wire skeleton her spite had been. Every time she opened her mouth to speak that afternoon, her voice cracked and wobbled so much that Cook, fearing an attack of bronchitis, made her a special pot of ginger tea and added extra black pepper to the day’s rasam. But when she tried to lift her cup her hands shook. She started at the slightest sound, and looked about her as if she were alone in an unfamiliar room. As dusk fell she began to pace the length of the house, stopping every now and then to peer out of the window at Mariamma’s hut.
“So nice for them,” she said each time. “A boy at last.”
“Well,” said Batu Pahat Uncle after an hour or so, “I just came to say that Ranjana’s husband has finally got a permanent job with the Electricity Board. Now I really must be going.” No one pressed him to stay for a meal, and since my uncle was not home, he walked to the bus station, calling out his congratulations to Mariamma’s husband as he passed the hut.
When I went upstairs to bed that night my aunt was still pacing; I could hear her slippers dragging on the marble floors.
She did not go to bed for another two days, and then, at last, she collapsed into the red armchair from exhaustion, and Cook helped her to her bed. My uncle came home that afternoon to find her watching the ceiling fan turn in a stupor, smiling at cobwebs and beams of light, then whimpering for no apparent reason. He ordered Cook to make her oats porridge and to wash her hair that evening.
“Well,” said Cook to the stove, “at least I remember how to do all this from when I first came to work here.”
But this time my aunt only stayed in bed for a week, sipping her oats porridge from a spoon and letting Cook oil and wash her hair every evening. At the end of that week she got out of bed, washed her face, and came downstairs, though she was greatly changed. She’d lost weight, and her eyes darted and flickered like a madwoman’s. Tiny capillaries in her cheeks had burst, leaving bruises and red patches. She spoke fast and threw sudden tantrums: when Cook put too much sugar in her tea; when the fan blew away a page of the newspaper she was reading; when I tuned the radio to a different channel without asking her. She accused the new driver of siphoning petrol out of the Toyota to sell on the street. She counted the eggs in the fridge every night. She eavesdropped when Cook bargained with the vegetable vendor.
That was why, when Batu Pahat Uncle insisted one afternoon that I go and pay for Mariamma’s baby’s milk, I balked. My aunt was asleep upstairs, and Cook was dozing in a chair a few feet away when he called to me.
“Take five ringgit from that jar,” he said, pointing to the jam jar on the kitchen counter, “and go to the cornershop. Mariamma’s oldest daughter is there, begging the shop man to give her a tin of milk powder for her baby brother. Go and pay for the milk powder and take the girl back to her hut.”
“But you’ve been sitting in that chair all day,” I argued. “How you know who is doing what in the shop?”
“Don’t ask questions,” he said. “Go and pay for the milk.”
“But,” I protested, “I can’t simply-simply steal Periamma’s money.” I knew my aunt kept small bills in the jar to pay the newspaper man and the roti man; she would fly into a rage when her accounts didn’t tally.
“Go,” he said again. “Your Periamma won’t notice that five dollars is missing, and one day she herself will be thankful you did this simple thing.”
And so I went, and found Mariamma’s daughter, barefoot, uncombed, and snotfaced, pleading with the shop man for a tin of Dutch Baby milk powder. I paid for the milk and walked the little girl back to the hut her father had built in a corner of my uncle’s land. My aunt never noticed the missing money until the girl turned up at our back door three weeks later to ask if we would buy her another tin of milk.
“Please, Aunty,” she said to my aunt, “two days already my baby brother got no milk.”
“You think what?” my aunt said. “You think I am sitting here waiting to hand out tins of milk to anyone who comes asking, is it? You think Uncle is saving his hard-earned money for you and your brothers and sisters, so that your own father can sit in the toddy shop and your own mother can walk the streets all day with no worries?”
Mariamma’s daughter twisted her right leg around her left and pushed with her tongue at the new front teeth cutting through her gums. “But Aunty,” she said with a small sniff, “how come last time Nirmala-Akka came to cornershop and bought milk for my brother, and now you saying cannot?”
My aunt blinked, twisted her mouth to one side, and turned to me. “Oh I see,” she said. “Wah wah, I did not know we were so rich. Good lah, we got money to give away. Then what for you’re acting so shy now, Nirmala? If you got enough kolupu to distribute my money without even asking me, why don’t you go and get the jam jar now? Go. Go and get it.”
I knew I’d hear more about the matter when the girl was gone. My heart racing, my lips cursing Batu Pahat Uncle, I ran and got the jar and handed it to my aunt. She unscrewed the top and took out a single scarlet ten-ringgit note, crisp and still redolent of the bank. She held it just above the girl’s round eyes, rubbing it several times between her thumb and index finger. “Very nice,” she said, “now milk coming free so you’ll simply-simply give your brother milk for everything, four-five times a day also can, I know you. Yes or not?”
“No, Aunty,” said the girl.
“Passersby on the road also you’ll call into your house and give them Dutch Baby milk. Yes or not?”
“Hmm. Take and go then. I don’t want to hear you asking for milk money for at least five weeks, understand? Your brother is old enough now to eat other things. Give him rice. Give him greens cooked soft.”
“Yes, Aunty. Thank you Aunty. Romba thanks.” She took the money with both hands, fell perfunctorily at my aunt’s feet, and then fled to her father’s hut at the bottom of the garden.
For a few moments my aunt stood watching Mariamma’s daughter’s thin, swift figure recede across the garden, past the African daisies that came up to her waist, under the papaya trees that dwarfed her. The sun was white in a cloudless sky, and the girl’s feet so light that they seemed not to touch the ground:
like a tiny, black butterfly, she flitted from flower bed to flower bed until she reached and was swallowed by the open door of the hut.
When my aunt turned at last from the back door, she did not meet my eyes. “How generous one’s wife is with the neighbor’s ghee,” she said under her breath, and though I braced myself
for a hearty scolding and two tight slaps, that Tamil proverb was all she ever said about the liberty I’d taken with her housekeeping money.
* * *
Inexplicably, with no tantrums or accusations, it became the practice in our house to pay for Mariamma’s son’s milk after that. In gratitude, Mariamma and her husband had one of the girls bring the baby to our house every Saturday, to show us how strong he was growing, how quick his smile, how full his cheeks, all thanks to the milk we provided. The girls were always dirty and dressed in rags; the boy invariably fresh from his bath and dusted with powder.
“Thank you for the milk, Aunty,” the girls were taught to say. “My father says thank you. My mother says thank you.”
And my aunt no longer asked them which father they meant, or where their mother was, but slowly, as the weeks went by, allowed her longing for the baby to show itself. In between his visits she no longer counted the eggs, or threw tantrums when her tea was too sweet. One Saturday she grabbed the baby’s big toe and did not let go until it was time for his sister to leave. The following week she planted a kiss on his forehead. And on the third week the girl who’d brought him—Mariamma’s second daughter, who was bowlegged and had a beetle-shaped birthmark on her left cheek—said, “Please carry him, Aunty. My father says you must carry him. My father says it will bring us blessings.” My aunt took the baby in her arms, and her eyes flashed and burned so bright I had to squint to meet them. She smiled then, and though I knew she was not smiling at me—though her bright eyes did not even see me—the old love flickered in my veins, waiting to be relit. I wanted to buy that pink-skinned baby for my Aunt with five ringgit from the jam jar, for ten ringgit I saved up from my pocket money, for however much he cost.
From then on my aunt held the baby whenever he was brought to our house, until the day he fell, his green eyes blinking furiously, his sparse-toothed smile surprising us all. Five pairs of eyes were riveted to him when he fell, and yet I suspect that neither my aunt not Batu Pahat Uncle nor the baby’s sister nor Cook would be able to say, any better than I can, why or how he fell. Perhaps he slipped from my aunt’s hands because his skin was slick with traces of coconut oil from his morning massage. Perhaps he was bothered by a new tooth, or an attack of wind, or an itch, or any of the various things that make babies struggle and squirm. Perhaps my aunt had a dizzy spell because she’d skipped breakfast and lunch that day.
Amma pullai, amma pullai, amma pullai, she whispered.
And the boy’s sister’s scream, a siren in the afternoon stillness. Each time it began to die down it gathered new energy from somewhere in her throat and rose once more towards the white ceiling.
They locked into place like two voices in a round, my aunt’s words and the girl’s scream. The ceiling fan whirled a third part. Everything turned in frantic circles; time was stuck in a loop.
“God works in mysterious ways,” said Batu Pahat Uncle. “God knows everything.” He smiled at my aunt and drank his coconut water.
It was as if someone had snapped their fingers to bring us to our senses. Mariamma’s daughter stopped screaming and went to squat by her brother, sobbing quietly. My aunt turned to Cook and said, “Tell Driver we must take the baby to the hospital now.” I slipped my shoes on and sprinted to Mariamma’s hut to tell them what had happened.
Ponniah was asleep on the mud floor of the hut, on an old sarong he’d laid out. Three of the girls were stirring seeds and tamarind pods in a cracked clay pot on the floor, pretending to taste their curry and add the spices it lacked.
“I think so it needs more chilli,” said one.
“Too much salt already,” said another.
The fourth girl was mending an old cotton petticoat in
“Didn’t you hear your sister scream?” I said. “Are you all deaf? The baby—your Thambi—he fell on the floor—wake up
They looked up at me all at once, their eyes like lamps in
When I came out of the hut into the light, Ponniah wiping the tears from his cheeks and muttering his sorrow beside me, my uncle’s car pulled into the driveway.
My uncle and aunt and Ponniah took the baby to the hospital. I stayed home with Cook and Batu Pahat Uncle, the one sitting bolt upright at the dining table, clutching the edges of her chair, the other dozing in his red armchair. At six o’clock the Ford Escort pulled once more into the driveway, and the small group trooped into the kitchen. The baby was not with them. Cook stood up.
My uncle cleared his throat. “The boy will have to stay in hospital for now,” he said. “No injuries as far as they can see, but still something is wrong. They’ll have to do some tests.”
“Tests?” said Batu Pahat Uncle. “Hospital? But how can the family afford—”
“Of course we’ll pay for it,” snapped my uncle, “What do
“Ah, well, then, that’s as it should be. Everything is as it should be.” Batu Pahat Uncle smiled peaceably around the room.
* * *
Mariamma’s baby was in the hospital for six weeks. Every evening my uncle and aunt and Mariamma and her husband went to visit him together; every night when they came back my aunt told Cook that he lay in his little cot and stared up at them, his tongue hanging out of his mouth like a dog’s. At the end of those six weeks two things happened: the doctors gave up, said they could not determine what was wrong with the boy, much less fix the problem, and discharged him; and Batu Pahat Uncle came shuffling down the driveway, mopping his brow with his Good Morning towel.
My aunt was carrying the baby when they came back from the hospital on that day. He stared up at her; she smiled down at him, and in one hand she held a small cloth with which she dabbed every so often at his drool.
“The doctor says he might improve, anyway, with weekly-weekly treatments and therapy and all that,” she said.
“The doctor says,” echoed my uncle, “that as he grows older he might even be able to move around the house with a few adjustments here and here. A wheelchair and all that. Ramps and a special toilet and bathtub in the bathroom.”
“Wheelchair?” said Batu Pahat Uncle. “Toilet? Bathtub? But in their hut they don’t even have a floor. Hanh?” He leaned forward in his armchair and turned to Mariamma and her husband, who had huddled close together and silent all this while, like two wet birds. “How will you take care of your son? Did you hear everything the doctor said?”
“That’s the thing....” murmured Mariamma’s husband. “The only thing we can do is to leave him at the orphanage. There is a good Christian one in town, they say the nuns are kind—”
“Orphanage? But I think so,” said Batu Pahat Uncle, “that there is a much better solution. You know this house has no sons; these people will give you a small offering in exchange for the gift of your son. Then the boy can live here. He can have his weekly-weekly therapy and his special bathtub and all that. And you yourselves will know how he is. No need to take a bus to town to visit him.”
“Otherwise,” my uncle began, “we could always pay for—”
“We could always, we could always.” Batu Pahat Uncle stood up, and perhaps because I had so rarely seen him standing indoors, he suddenly seemed much taller than I’d remembered. “What is all this we could always? This,” he said, with another gentle smile around the room, “is the best thing for everybody. It is always good to take other people’s children into your house. It is always a blessing. Is it not, Madhavi?”
My aunt started and looked at him. It was the first time I’d heard anyone call her by her name; she’d always been Maddam or Aunty or Maniam Saar’s wife.
“It would give you great peace of mind,” persisted Batu Pahat Uncle, “to have this boy in your house, to raise him as your own son, wouldn’t it, Madhavi?”
My aunt bobbed her head from side to side. “Why not?” she said softly. “He is like this because of me only. Shouldn’t I take responsibility for it?”
And that was how Thambi came to live with us.
He doesn’t talk, and the doctors were wrong about him: though my uncle paid to have ramps and special furniture built into the house, he never learned to walk. My aunt bathes him and dresses him and sings old Hindi songs to him. Cook makes him a porridge of rice and chicken and vegetables every day, and my aunt feeds it to him with a teaspoon. In the mornings she sits him in his wheelchair and puts him outside in the sunlight to enjoy the view. The sparrows and the mynah birds, the newspaper man making his rounds. But mostly he stares up at the blue sky, squinting in the sunlight, drooling onto his shirt front. Sometimes he smiles and stretches his arms out towards the sky as if he were trying to touch it. Sometimes I touch the tips of my ten fingers to the tips of his, and his eyes latch onto my mine. Thambi, I tell him then, Thambi, you’re our good luck, you’re our lucky gecko, you’re a white puppy that showed up in our backyard. I don’t have to say it out loud for him to hear me: he holds my gaze and smiles.
And that same sweet smile colors my aunt’s face whenever she looks at him. She sings him old Hindi songs even when he isn’t listening. When she has bathed him and put him outside for the morning, she sits at the kitchen table combing her hair and singing softly:
Kitna haseen hai yeh ek sapna
Phoolon ke shaher mein hai ghar apna
Kya sama hai, tu kahan hai?
Mariamma and her husband and daughters come to see Thambi every afternoon, though soon the oldest daughter will be getting married and moving to Penang. After my uncle paid them for Thambi, Ponniah bought a trishaw and began to take passengers around town. Mariamma no longer goes out at night. They managed to scrape together a small dowry for the oldest girl, though the other four might have to find factory jobs and boys who’ll marry them for love. When the family comes to see Thambi they all cluster around his wheelchair, and Mariamma, plump and weather-beaten now but still pretty, says, “Look at him, isn’t he just like a doll?” She beams at him and then at each of us in turn, but when her gaze meets my aunt’s they both quickly lower their eyelids to look once again at Thambi. Their smiles tremble and turn shy, nervous, perhaps even grateful. “Look at him,” Mariamma says more softly then, “Isn’t he still just like a doll? Nothing can spoil him. After everything, he’s still as beautiful and as good as a doll.”
And it’s true, when my aunt lays him down in his bed at night, he closes his eyes just like a doll. But when she turns the light out he opens them again, because he knows what’s in store. She sits on the edge of his bed and makes shadows with her hands, and tells him stories:
Look, she says, here is Krishna playing his flute.
Here is Yama the Demon with his scary eyes.
Look, here are Rama and Sita dancing.
Here is Ravana the evil king kidnapping Sita.
I don’t think Thambi understands any of her complicated tales, but I can see him trying to keep track of the shadows with his eyes, frowning, just like I used to, from the effort to tell the gods from the demons.
PREETA SAMARASAN ("Our House Stands in a City of Flowers") is the winner of Hyphen's 2007 short story competition. She was born and raised in Malaysia and graduated from the Master of Fine Art program at the University of Michigan. Her first novel, Evening Is The Whole Day, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin & Co. She and her husband and dog travel in a pack and make fires for warmth.