Friday, July 5, 2013


This was finalist at Glimmer Train. 


          Z was out of tea bags, curry leaves, moong dal, and amla juice. A trip to the local Indo-Pak grocery store was necessary. Of course they sold dates from Algeria, Lipton’s, and Cadbury products from the U.K., frozen lamb from New Zealand, and such, that served the greater community, but the neon sign stating the store was “Indo-Pak” and the painted sign under it that proclaimed “We sell halal meat” were de rigueur.
          Z was in a hurry to get home, needing that first cup of light Lipton’s Darjeeling for the day. She hadn’t consumed any of the strong mamri with spices she had brewed that morning. Not her cup of tea. She wondered if that was because she was wishy-washy. She had had just her granola bar with a cup of hot water thus far so the dull ache of being without tea was starting to numb her brow. She got her supplies and was about to drive away. A hapless looking woman with two children in tow, a girl about five, and a wailing baby were in the parking lot, with a cart load of groceries. Z thought for a moment she had seen the woman before, only to realize she looked exactly like the girl on the cover of a National Geographic from some years ago that was in the news a lot. The baby was shrieking because his pacifier was on the ground. The five year old was trying to put the groceries in the car with not much luck. Not sure if they would have a common language, Z paused and decided helping out with a few bags of groceries did not require the assistance of a translator. As she walked toward them picking up a glass jar that had rolled out of a bag and thankfully wasn’t broken, she said hi. The lady was happy to have the help in her frazzled morning and spoke fluent English and Hindi. And Z had wondered if they could communicate minus a translator! The family had just moved from Michigan and bought a home forty houses down the street from Z’s.
          Meera was the lady’s name. She invited Z to come visit. So far they had met only their immediate neighbors, an elderly couple who were also new in town having moved here from Shropshire , England, empty nesters. Another family with five children that home schooled were the neighbors on the other side of the house. The home schoolers ranged in age from two to twelve so her children played with them sometimes. The lady from Shropshire was a portrait photographer whose work was in the mould of Anne Geddes'. Her husband worked somewhere in downtown. The mention of Shropshire brought a smile to both their faces. Bertie Wooster and his menagerie of odd uncles and awful aunts were the only other folks they had “known” who were also from Shropshire. It is unfair to cast people in molds they do not belong in but preconceived notions are a fact of life, so they did share a little “Are they anything like the Woosters?” moment.
          Meera began, “Oh no, not at all. They’re unique but not crazy. They are the nicest and some of the smartest people I’ve met in a while. You really ought to meet them. Mary is very feisty and very nice. She asked me to look at the pictures in her studio and I wondered if she worked for Vogue or something. James has an outward persona of a hard drinking rugby watching boor but he is really the nicest person around who is working too hard to look mean. He used to drive around with a large sticker at the back of his Jeep that said in letters you could read from a mile –
He saw me staring at that a few times and peeled it off. Now he drives around with a slightly darker than the rest of the Jeep tan rectangle on the rear door. Mary had said to me that day, ”His bark’s worse than his bite. His heart’s in the right place. He is only just coming to terms with the fact his mother is Jewish. He’s worked for fifty years at creating an identity that is more British than the Queen. Then we got here. He met cousins on his mother’s side that are Schindler Jews, and blood’s thicker than water. They’ve welcomed us into their family like they’ve known us forever. They’re quite the richest people we’ve ever met, and the most accomplished, but that has not given them any false airs. The real James is a good kind man. I wish he had realized a very long time ago that you can be British and Jewish and Catholic and still be happy.”
          Over the next few years Z and Meera became good friends. A theme played out in Meera’s life that Z, in spite of being her best friend and neighbor, had not figured out in ten whole years. Only when Meera’s diagnosis was so grave, the prognosis so cataclysmic, that her parents were rushing over from their quiet lives in Hoshiarpur to say goodbye to their thirty six year old daughter and take the grandchildren back with them, that Z realized her friend was dying. The homeschooling family helped her children with homework. James and Mary drove them to activities, James calling it “Kindertransport”.
          Meera had been slowly dying right before her eyes and Z hadn’t seen that coming. After Ma had died Z was sure she understood dying much better than most people her age but had been very wrong, and what a time to pick to make a mistake like that. Z blamed herself for being so dumb but that was so futile. She got busy instead asking Meera what she would like her to do to make this transition easier. It is only those who have seen the inevitability of dying from the perspective of the powerless who ask such questions. But it made sense to Meera. Every day after the children had gone off to school Z was supposed to come over to the hospital and take notes. Meera could last about thirty minutes at a time away from the breathing tube so it was a herculean effort on her part. She gave Z a raw, experiential version of her life. She said at the end of thirteen days, “Z, watch over my babies. And you girl, don’t die with your music still in you. You and I are sisters not related by blood but by a common archetypal journey through life. It is too late for me. You better snap out of your zombie-ness before you are dead for real.”
          Watching Meera’s parents, her young children, her clueless and cold husband go through this time in their lives was horrific for Z. She had no idea that being around death is one thing when you are nineteen. But in your thirties it has a completely different effect on you. Her heart grieved inconsolably for the children. The parents had so much less grieving time in years she couldn’t think of their pain as equal to that of the children’s pain. It wouldn’t be until a year later when Z would have another baby and lose him to a very complicated surgery five weeks later that she would understand the pain of a surviving parent. She could hardly believe she was annoyed with her sons for being alive and healthy, and had needed a couple of weeks to stop herself from distancing herself from them. “Grieving is a sick, sick job. You live through hell and put your loved ones through hell. Is it any wonder people dull their pain with a variety of narcotics and accept society’s verdict on their choice of pain relief. If I hadn’t watched my own family coming apart at the seams because of vices I can imagine why such poisons find a foothold in so many lives.”
          Meera’s death left a vacuum in Z’s life too but what hurt her most, almost weirdly so, given all that had been lost in Meera’s dying, was the loss of a life that had the potential to do so much. All else was so traumatic Z couldn’t deal with thinking about the pain. But somewhere in her heart she had begun to forgive her own mother for dying, so the pain of leaving ones children behind began to eat away at her heart and soul over the next few years. She already knew what that look of a hunted animal had spoken through Meera’s eyes in the last three days of her life when the doctors had allowed her children to spend all the visiting hours with her. That was the look Ma had had in her eyes too the last few days of her life. Prior to that, Ma had been aloof. The pain of her condition and the knowledge she’d never even live to see Z graduate school, leave alone have her own family, had made her that way, Z reckoned. The doctors and nurses had also been crying.
          Meera had been a very good mother, a dutiful wife and daughter-in-law despite the constant belittling and suspicion she was subjected to every day of her life. She had played her role in community, and family as honorably as was possible, ever the first one to help out at school, care for the sick, and so on. This was the person the mother-in-law asked every day where she had been, looking her up and down with suspicion when she went out to the store or anyplace, even if she took the children with her. Her husband checked the mileage on her car every day, looked in her purse, read every letter, snooped in her journal, and withheld money for no reason at all. For reasons best known to her weirdo husband a single human hair could be found on every important document, safe, wallet, cell phone, keychain, left lying around the house. Once she had found a single hair of hers taped across the door to his closet. When they painted the house and redid the flooring in wood, he had said to her that evening as she sat on the bed, ”You are trash. I am throwing you out.” This was nothing unusual so Meera hadn’t reacted then, but on her deathbed it was funny to her. On the day after the wedding he had told her he hated sick people and had really been looking for a girl five foot nine and a size zero. And here she was sick and dying, a size zero, only it had not been possible for her to grow from five foot two to five foot nine in all the years of her ignoble marriage. Between the mandap and bidaai, he had whispered in her ear,” You are so ugly but I married you any way. Look at your feet. They’re abnormal.” The honeymoon had been more of the same. He said he wasn’t sure if this was what he really wanted. The day she had her first baby he had shown her a picture of a model perhaps a size minus two and told her all his life that was what he had really wanted. Her hair, very mousy earlier, had grown thick and lush through the pregnancy and every evening as he opened the door and walked in the house he never wanted to see the baby or said hello to her. He’d open the door with a flourish and ask in his high pitched voice sounding exactly like his mother, “You still haven’t cut your hair?” with mock incredulity. He harassed her thus until one day, a couple of years into this drama, while cooking, she took the kitchen shears and cut her long hair which was now grown down to her hips. He still wasn’t happy.
          A month later she found out she was pregnant again so she papered over the cracks in the marriage and looked forward to baby number two. He tried once, maybe twice, to make her take a fall getting off the car when she was eight months pregnant and laughed out loud when she asked him to be more careful but since she did not get hurt she decided to ignore the fact that he had tried to hurt her and their unborn baby. He’d call his mother every week to tell her he’d visit Ratlam in November knowing full well the baby was due in November. The mother-in-law had refused to come help with the baby stating it was getting too cold for her. So now Meera had no help with the house or the children. The mother-in-law was so mean it helped to have her gone even if it meant more work but now her husband was becoming a demon incarnate. Maybe the mother-in-law’s presence might have helped she imagined. Her husband kept in contact with that boss and his wife through the years and pointedly told Meera he had just spoken with them every time he called them. The day she figured it all out, she knew she was never really married. She had been hijacked by this man and his mother and she was just their slave girl. No wonder he hated his own children, for he made crude sexual remarks at them too. When they came home from school with trophies he was unusually sarcastic. He saw that as Meera’s and the children’s achievement and hated them even more. He’d point out in a high nasaly tone everything they were lacking in talent-wise, imagined or real, so that would override any happiness they had felt doing well at school. If Meera intervened things got uglier.
          Things started to go very wrong in the bedroom. Z did not ask exactly what and Meera did not elaborate. He threatened to put naked pictures of her and of the children on the internet. Right then Meera figured there must be cameras in the bathrooms and bedrooms. Z could not figure out what kind of man would do that to his own wife and children but she knew he was a very sick man.
One night, Meera she had overheard her mother-in-law say to her husband,” You need to get yourself a kerosene stove and a real wife, a nice hindu girl from Ratlam. She’ll bring dowry too. For a man who owns a hundred acres of land your father-in-law gave you nothing. And be very careful. This girl has mool nakshatra and other doshas in her horoscope. I’m lucky I’m not dead. Maybe it will affect you. You have grown old suddenly, lost your hair and are looking just like your father. Maybe it is affecting your health.”
          Meera, a graduate from a home science college in Delhi, a wizard in the kitchen, was shamed at every party in their home and outside being told in a loud voice that she couldn’t cook. He told her to keep her mouth shut because she spoke terrible English and he didn’t want people to know he had married a farmer’s daughter. Surely, her mother a sikh and her father a hindu must’ve only gotten married because her mother was pregnant with her. Meera had never heard such things in her life so this was a language she did not speak. She pretended to not understand. And Meera had shut down mentally so completely within a year or two of marriage that nothing bothered her, not his attempts to hurt her emotionally, nor physically. On her deathbed she said to Z,” I was captain of the Delhi University debate team and I could not respond to this man and his mother because I believed we were a team. I didn’t know a spouse could wish you dead. I didn’t know a mother could wish for her grandchildren to be orphaned. But this is the real world. Lies rule. Those of us who cannot fight against lies and corruption are not meant for this world. In memory of all those who have died as I am dying, you will tell my story.”
          Z remembered one year when instead of going to the celebrations at the Bengali Association she had accepted Meera’s invitation to a potluck dinner party on Boishakhi at another friend’s place. All her life she had imagined Boishakhi was exclusively a Bengali festival. Now she knew it wasn’t.
The crowd was very friendly, outgoing, and loved the good life. This was an energetic upbeat crowd. Z, staid and dull from years of shutting down emotionally, felt refreshed knowing such people actually existed. You could call this a perfect evening if only you could erase the memory of a single ugly incident. Every body sat down in the family room after dinner, about fifteen in all. The talk turned to the stock market. Strategies for buying and selling stocks in the upcoming week were being talked about. Meera’s husband sat down next to Maya’s husband and had a little Brokeback moment going there, that went into thirty minutes or so, eventually. Z, shocked beyond belief, did a quick visual survey of the faces in the room to see if anybody else had noticed. Not one face registered surprise. Maya was helping with the dishes so she wasn’t in the immediate area. Meera was. Z thought Meera had quietly imploded from grief and humiliation. About two thirds of the faces showed traces of disgust. The other third was amused. One of the guys was more than amused, he was mesmerized and kept interrupting them, his eyes shining. Z could not understand why no one tried to set things right. Maybe the oldest person in the room, or the host for the evening ought to have said something, anything, and stopped the drama in the first minute. Obviously the dynamics of these two marriages were no secret. Why does society allow creeps to get away with this kind of thing? Only Z hadn’t figured it out in all these years. Maybe people thought Meera was fine with this because she didn’t move a muscle, except to look like her life force and her tears had all evaporated. Of course, taking the cue from Meera, when they met the following weekend, Z glossed over that memory and pretended it had never happened.
          Meera had begun to withdraw from society at this time, Z recalled. She had tried to go to the PTA and the temple and the Gurdwara by herself for a few months but gave up on that too. She had said to Z her husband knew exactly what wedge to throw between her and her friends, so she stopped meeting them. If Z wasn’t a good neighbor they might never have met again since that Boishakhi day. Meera’s husband had a well choreographed routine. He’d flirt with Meera’s friend. The friend would be grossed out. Or he’d flirt with the friend’s husband or make demeaning, even sexual remarks about their children, thereby alienating them for ever. She was so infinitely ashamed of being tied to a pimp that in the next few years she had completely stopped meeting people if they weren’t her in-laws. She kept in touch with her family via phone and email until she realized every email was read and every phone call was recorded. He knew the content of conversations between her and the children during the day. She no longer sang in front of another living thing because she felt ugly about it having been called a ‘gane-waali’(derogatory phrase for singer-geisha) a few times at Lodi and at a ladies’ sangeet back in Ratlam so she sang in the bathroom only. He’d know which song she’d been singing. He made bitchy comments about everything she did from yoga to watching T.V. The whole house was bugged. As always stalking leads to nothing good and he became more belligerent. The police was called twice, once because he had tried to hurt her and the children. She had said to the children she would protect them with the last drop of her blood. He probably mulled over that, made a big show of attacking the younger child in the kitchen while she was cooking one day, so she put herself between then. Now he called the police saying she was attacking him with a knife, and came from a war faring tribe that trained its young to wield knives and swords, so she was a trained killer. He laughed and laughed and laughed while waiting for the police to respond to the 911 call. He showed the police photos of Meera’s family in their traditional garb, sword and all. Children’s services had to get involved. Meera died of shame.
          Over the next year after Meera had died Z watched Meera’s husband spiral out of control. His children were in India. His mother had gone back too saying she was too old to keep house in this cold country. She went back to Ratlam. A few friends of his moved in as roommates. Music played all night long. Three or more cars were parked in the driveway every night. Then he was incarcerated for IRS fraud. The house was auctioned off. And Z lost track of him.


 Dear Reader, Z is a conglomerate of 5 different women. My in-laws are awesome, so please don't go looking for a complete parallel to my life in this story. It does not exist.

No comments:

Post a Comment