EXCERPT FROM SISTER OF MY HEART
They say in the old tales that the first night after a child is born, the Bidhata Purush comes down to earth himself to decide what its fortune is to be. That is why they bathe babies in sandalwood water and wrap them in soft red malmal, color of luck. That is why they leave sweetmeats by the cradle. Silver-leafed sandesh, dark pantuas floating in golden syrup, jilipis orange as the heart of a fire, glazed with honey-sugar. If the child is especially lucky, in the morning it will all be gone.
“That’s because the servants sneak in during the night and eat them,” says Anju, giving her head an impatient shake as Abha Pishi oils her hair. This is how she is, my cousin, always scoffing, refusing to believe. But she knows, as I do, that no servant in all of Calcutta would dare eat sweets meant for a god.
The old tales say this also: In the wake of the Bidhata Purush come the demons, for that is the world’s nature, good and evil mingled. That is why they leave an oil lamp burning. That is why they place the sacred tulsi leaf under the baby’s pillow for protection. In richer households, like the one my mother grew up in, she has told us, they hire a brahmin to sit in the corridor and recite auspicious prayers all night.
“What nonsense,” Anju says. “There are no demons.”
I am not so sure. Perhaps they do not have the huge teeth, the curved blood-dripping claws and bulging red eyes of our Children’s Ramayan Picture Book, but I have a feeling they exist. Haven’t I sensed their breath, like slime-black fingers brushing my spine? Later, when we are alone, I will tell Anju this.
But in front of others I am always loyal to her. So I say, bravely, “That’s right. Those are just old stories.”
It is early evening on our terrace, its bricks overgrown with moss. A time when the sun hangs low on the horizon, half hidden by the pipal trees which line our compound walls all the way down the long driveway to the bolted wrought-iron gates. Our great-grandfather had them planted one hundred years ago to keep the women of his house safe from the gaze of strangers. Abha Pishi, one of our three mothers, has told us this.
Yes, we have three mothers—perhaps to make up for the fact that we have no fathers.
There’s Pishi, our widow aunt who threw herself heart-first into her younger brother’s household when she lost her husband at the age of eighteen. Dressed in austere white, her graying hair cut close to her scalp in the orthodox style so that the bristly ends tickle my palms when I run my hands over them, she’s the one who makes sure we are suitably dressed for school in the one-inch-below-the-knee uniforms the nuns insist on. She finds for us, miraculously, stray pens and inkpots and missing pages of homework. She makes us our favorite dishes: luchis rolled out and fried a puffy golden-brown, potato and cauliflower curry cooked without chilies, thick sweet payesh made from the milk of Budhi-cow, whose owner brings her to our house each morning to be milked under Pishi’s stern, miss-nothing stare. On holidays she plaits jasmine into our hair. But most of all Pishi is our fount of information, the one who tells us the stories our mothers will not, the secret, delicious, forbidden tales of our past.
There’s Anju’s mother, whom I call Gouri Ma, her fine cheekbones and regal forehead hinting at generations of breeding, for she comes from a family as old and respected as that of the Chatterjees, which she married into. Her face is not beautiful in the traditional sense—even I, young as I am, know this. Lines of hardship are etched around her mouth and on her forehead, for she was the one who shouldered the burden of keeping the family safe on that thunderclap day eight years ago when she received news of our fathers’ deaths. But her eyes, dark and endless-deep—they make me think of Kalodighi, the enormous lake behind the country mansion our family used to own before Anju and I were born. When Gouri Ma smiles at me with her eyes, I stand up straighter. I want to be noble and brave, just like her.
Lastly (I use this word with some guilt), there’s my own mother, Nalini. Her skin is still golden, for though she’s a widow my mother is careful to apply turmeric paste to her face each day. Her perfect-shaped lips glisten red from paan, which she loves to chew—mostly for the color it leaves on her mouth, I think. She laughs often, my mother, especially when her friends come for tea and talk. It is a glittery, tinkling sound, like jeweled ankle bells, people say, though I myself feel it is more like a thin glass struck with a spoon. Her cheek feels as soft as the lotus flower she’s named after on those rare occasions when she presses her face to mine. But more often when she looks at me a frown ridges her forehead between eyebrows beautiful as wings. Is it from worry or displeasure? I can never tell. Then she remembers that frowns cause age lines and smoothes it away with a finger.
Now Pishi stops oiling Anju’s hair to give us a wicked smile. Her voice grows low and shivery, the way it does when she’s telling ghost stories. “They’re listening, you know. The demons. And they don’t like little eight-year-old girls talking like this. Just wait till tonight . . .”
Because I am scared I interrupt her with the first thought that comes into my head. “Pishi Ma, tell no, did the sweets disappear for us?”
Sorrow moves like smoke-shadow over Pishi’s face. I can see that she would like to make up another of those outrageous tales that we so love her to tell, full of magic glimmer and hoping. But finally she says, her voice flat, “No, Sudha. You weren’t so lucky.”
I know this already. Anju and I have heard the whispers. Still, I must ask one more time.
“Did you see anything that night?” I ask. Because she was the one who stayed with us the night of our birth while our mothers lay in bed, still in shock from the terrible telegram which had sent them both into early labor that morning. Our mothers, lying in beds they would never again share with their husbands. My mother weeping, her beautiful hair tangling about her swollen face, punching at a pillow until it burst, spilling cotton stuffing white as grief. Gouri Ma, still and silent, staring up into a darkness which pressed upon her like the responsibilities she knew no one else in the family could take on.
To push them from my mind I ask urgently, “Did you at least hear something?”
Pishi shakes her head in regret. “Maybe the Bidhata Purush doesn’t come for girl-babies.” In her kindness she leaves the rest unspoken, but I’ve heard the whispers often enough to complete it in my head. For girl-babies who are so much bad luck that they cause their fathers to die even before they are born.
Anju scowls, and I know that as always she can see into my thoughts with the X-ray vision of her fiercely loving eyes. “Maybe there’s no Bidhata Purush either,” she states and yanks her hair from Pishi’s hands though it is only half-braided. She ignores Pishi’s scolding shouts and stalks to her room, where she will slam the door.
But I sit very still while Pishi’s fingers rub the hibiscus oil into my scalp, while she combs away knots with the long, soothing rhythm I have known since the beginning of memory. The sun is a deep, sad red, and I can smell, faint on the evening air, wood smoke. The pavement dwellers are lighting their cooking fires. I’ve seen them many times when Singhji, our chauffeur, drives us to school: the mother in a worn green sari bent over a spice-grinding stone, the daughter watching the baby, keeping him from falling into the gutter. The father is never there. Maybe he is running up a platform in Howrah station in his red turban, his shoulders knotted from carrying years of trunks and bedding rolls, crying out, “Coolie chahiye, want a coolie, memsaab?” Or maybe, like my father, he too is dead.
Whenever I thought this my eyes would sting with sympathy, and if by chance Ramur Ma, the vinegary old servant woman who chaperones us everywhere, was not in the car, I’d beg Singhji to stop so I could hand the girl a sweet out of my lunch box. And he always did.
Among all our servants—but no, I do not really think of him as a servant—I like Singhji the best. Perhaps it is because I can trust him not to give me away to the mothers the way Ramur Ma does. Perhaps it is because he is a man of silences, speaking only when necessary—a quality I appreciate in a house filled with female gossip. Or perhaps it is the veil of mystery which hangs over him.
When Anju and I were about five years old, Singhji appeared at our gate one morning—like a godsend, Pishi says—looking for a driver’s job. Our old chauffeur had recently retired, and the mothers needed a new one badly but could not afford it. Since the death of the fathers, money had been short. In his broken Bengali, Singhji told Gouri Ma he’d work for whatever she could give him. The mothers were a little suspicious, but they guessed that he was so willing because of his unfortunate looks. It is true that his face is horrifying at first glance—I am embarrassed to remember that as a little girl I had screamed and run away when I saw him. He must have been caught in a terrible fire years ago, for the skin of the entire upper half of his face—all the way up to his turban—is the naked, puckered pink of an old burn. The fire had also scorched away his eyebrows and pulled his eyelids into a slant, giving him a strangely oriental expression at odds with the thick black mustache and beard that covers the rest of his face.
“He’s lucky we hired him at all,” Mother’s fond of saying. “Most people wouldn’t have because that burned forehead is a sure sign of lifelong misfortune. Besides, he’s so ugly.”
I do not agree. Sometimes when he does not know that I am watching him, I have caught a remembering look, at once faraway and intent, in Singhji’s eyes—the kind of look an exiled king might have as he thinks about the land he left behind. At those times his face is not ugly at all, but more like a mountain peak that has withstood a great ice storm. And somehow I feel we are the lucky ones because he chose to come to us.
Once I heard the servants gossiping about how Singhji had been a farmer somewhere in Punjab until the death of his family from a cholera epidemic made him take to the road. It made me so sad that although Mother had strictly instructed me never to talk about personal matters with any of the servants, I ran out to the car and told him how sorry I was about his loss. He nodded silently. No other response came from the burned wall of his face. But a few days later he told me that he used to have a child.
Though Singhji offered no details about this child, I immediately imagined that it had been a little girl my age. I could not stop thinking of her. How did she look? Did she like the same foods we did? What kinds of toys had Singhji bought for her from the village bazaar? For weeks I would wake up crying in the middle of the night because I had dreamed of a girl thrashing about on a mat, delirious with pain. In the dream she had my face.
“Really, Sudha!” Anju would tell me, in concern and exasperation—I often slept in her room and thus the job of comforting me fell to her—“How come you always get so worked up about imaginary things?”
That is what she would be saying if she were with me right now. For it seems to me I am receding, away from Pishi’s capable hands, away from the solidity of the sun-warmed bricks under my legs, that I am falling into the first night of my existence, where Anju and I lie together in a makeshift cradle in a household not ready for us, sucking on sugared nipples someone has put in our mouths to keep us quiet. Anjali and Basudha, although in all the turmoil around us no one has thought to name us yet. Anjali, which means offering, for a good woman is to offer up her life for others. And Basudha, so that I will be as patient as the earth goddess I am named after. Below us, Pishi is a dark, stretched-out shape on the floor, fallen into exhausted sleep, the dried salt of tears crusting her cheeks.
The Bidhata Purush is tall and has a long, spun-silk beard like the astrologer my mother visits each month to find out what the planets have in store for her. He is dressed in a robe made of the finest white cotton, his fingers drip light, and his feet do not touch the ground as he glides toward us. When he bends over our cradle, his face is so blinding-bright I cannot tell his expression. With the first finger of his right hand he marks our foreheads. It is a tingly feeling, as when Pishi rubs tiger-balm on our temples. I think I know what he writes for Anju. You will be brave and clever, you will fight injustice, you will not give in. You will marry a fine man and travel the world and have many sons. You will be happy.
It is more difficult to imagine what he writes for me. Perhaps he writes beauty, for though I myself do not think so, people say I am beautiful—even more than my mother was in the first years of her marriage. Perhaps he writes goodness, for though I am not as obedient as my mother would like, I try hard to be good. There is a third word he writes, the harsh angles of which sting like fire, making me wail, making Pishi sit up, rubbing her eyes. But the Bidhata Purush is gone already, and all she sees is a swirl—cloud or sifted dust—outside the window, a fading glimmer, like fireflies.
Years later I will wonder, that final word he wrote, was it sorrow?