The haloed blue monkey looked down at Neela, eyes half-closed in meditative contemplation, lips curved upward in a knowing smile. His muscular hands ended in surprisingly slender, human like fingers laced together in a manner that reminded Neela of Dr. Arumugam, her current doctor. In fact, the monkey reminded Neela of Dr. Arumugam a great deal, he was a kind and avuncular man also prone to knowing smiles, meditative eye closing and head nodding. Next to the Prussian blue ape was another monkey: a glistening black one that stood tall and erect, arms folded and eyes gazing in to the distance. He looked like a no-nonsense kind of monkey, the first monkey somewhat smug in his nirvanic state annoyed her. Neela decided she liked him more than the first one. In fact, after studying all the monkeys in the room she felt sure she liked the black one the best. Neela was sitting in a shrine of sorts to primates, or rather to one – Hanuman, the Lord of Monkeys. She and her mother were waiting in the front room of a mystic and ardent devotee of the simian God. It was said that Hanuman spoke through the mystic to those troubled souls who sought solace at His furry feet. The Hanuman Upasagar as the man was called in divine interventionist circles lived with a group of faithful attendants – all male and all confirmed bachelors in deference to their Lord’s single status. Looking at their faces, Neela wondered if perhaps it was just a way of covering up their poor marriage prospects. Dressed in dhotis of varying shades of white, their torsos of varying girth and hairiness adorned with precious else other than sacred threads and sweat, carrying brass pooja articles, water in plastic pots and pleated palm leaf hand fans, none of them, Neela noted, were particularly good looking. Or perhaps it was all a front for something more clandestine: a group of young men and their older male minder.
“Chee, chee. Are these thoughts to have in the house of God? Nothing good will happen for you if you think like this” Neela could predict what her mother would say if she could read her mind. Neela shook her head, trying to dispel the startling images flitting through her head.
The Hanuman Upasagar was the latest in a long string of the holy, blessed and venerable that Neela had been taken to see. These included a shrunken old tattooed woman who was a portal for Durga, a bearded man who worshipped Lord Murugan and Cuban cigars and a numerologist who insisted that Neela change her phone number in such a way that all the digits when added and subtracted in a complex manner equaled 0: a divine number he said that represented the infinite, the circle of life and her unfertilized egg. The telephone department was not very helpful.
Neela’s mother was asleep, chin resting on her meager chest, features drooped in disappointment. They had been waiting in the airless room for over two hours along with ten other people. Soon after they arrived, an attendant informed the group that the Upasagar had decided to break for breakfast and his mid morning nap. Those that desired could leave and try again for an appointment, though the assistant felt he should warn them that the Upasagar was booked for the next 6 months.
“The truly faithful are welcome to stay and wait” he concluded and having relayed this message, scanned the room with a stern gaze that forced the occupants, too afraid and too desperate to complain or leave to squirm and study their feet nervously. Satisfied that he had seared every bottom in the room to their seats the assistant walked away. After his departure the room stirred to life. Those gathered looked to their left and to their right. Bodies, tense with anticipation slackened in preparation of the long wait ahead. Some had come prepared with magazines, newspapers and novels, as though they knew this would happen. Others asked questions, tentatively at first and then with greater force. Is this your daughter? What is the matter? Where have you come from? My husband can never stay in one job. My son has failed his mid terms again. My daughter isn’t getting married. I want to know if my son should take Medicine or Engineering. I have terrible eczema. Some offered their troubles freely, others cautiously, waiting for the answer to the ‘And you?’ they tagged on to the end of their woes with an air of expectancy. Eyes registered relief when other’s problems were clearly worse than their own and clouded over when theirs no doubt deserved more pity. Neela’s mother garnered more sympathy than Neela.
“My daughter. No children. Married for ten years. To a Christian.”
It was the last three words that did it. To have a daughter married to a Christian was no doubt, far worse than to have a daughter who was not married at all.
Even after all these years Neela could still remember the day she arrived at the D’Souza’s. Her departure from her parental home was unlike anything portrayed in the matinee movies that flickered across their television screen on static Sunday afternoons. When greeted by the news that her eldest daughter was in love with a Christian boy, Neela’s mother did not threaten self-immolation nor did Neela’s father lock her away in her bedroom forcing her hand to an attempt at suicide that involved ceiling rafters and a nylon sari. They were all very dignified and quiet about the matter. In fact, there was an air of resignation over the house that day, as though her orthodox Hindu parents expected her to fall in love with a Roman Catholic. After all, twenty five years of having their every wish adhered to was a good run by any standards. Neela was calmly issued an ultimatum – forget the boy or leave the house. They would not accept a Christian son-in-law, and there would be no change of heart. So after twenty odd years of always doing as she was told, Neela finally did what she wanted to do. And left.
When Neela rang the bell at Xavier’s house on III Cross Street she hardly looked like a girl who had just severed all ties with her family. Starched handloom sari neatly pleated and pinned in place, thick black hair forced in to a tight braid, a small suitcase in hand and eyes as dry as the summer soil. The disappointment in Xavier’s mother’s eyes was obvious. Ruby D’Souza knew all about her son’s love affair and was perhaps expecting a pale, tear streaked, distraught face. Her plumped up breasts, eager to comfort and smother with their pillowy softness deflated considerably when confronted with Neela’s collected demeanour. Ruby recovered quickly and ushered Neela inside, cooing sympathetically.
“There, there. Don’t cry! I am here no? Don’t feel, ok?”
“When will Xavier be home?”
“Soon, soon. He has gone to the market. He’s such a good boy. We weren’t expecting you, you see. I told Xavier it’s only right he goes and talks to your parents. Not a bother, let me show you the house.”
Ruby rambled on nervously and proceeded to take Neela from room to room, pointing out the highlights of every nook and corner – the plastic flowers a gift from Jo in Singapore, the fruit bowl made by a cousin, the wool tapestry of a shepherd boy and a lamb cross-stitched by Ruby herself. When they came to Xavier’s bedroom, Ruby seeing that Neela did not have the good grace to blush, did so on her behalf
“Now that you are here, I won’t need to yell at him to clean his room.”
Ruby smiled brightly and herded Neela in to the back yard and sat her down on the nubbly, sloping surface of the washing stone; its base decorated with the abstract splashes and swirls of dried scummy soap water.
“Don’t move” Ruby commanded with mock severity before bursting in to laughter and waddling back inside the house.
Perhaps out of habit, Neela did as she was told and looked about the yard. It was large and poorly maintained with weeds and flowering shrubs clambering over one another in haphazard splendour. The floor had obviously not been swept in a long time, and was strewn with dead leaves, old plastic milk packets and dried mud. The only thing that appeared to be well tended to was a large, imposing mango tree. As she sat admiring its rich brown bark and dark green leaves, a man’s face emerged over the low dividing compound wall like a slow jack-in-the-box. The man said nothing and just stared at Neela, chewing on betel nut leaves. When Ruby returned, bearing a dainty patterned china bowl filled with perfectly cut cubes of succulent mango and a fork, she nodded at the man and called out “Chandroo Sir! Meet my daughter-in-law to be.” The man nodded at Neela in a non-committal fashion before slowly walking away.
“Ha! He pretends like he doesn’t care. But wait, wait. Soon all of III Cross Street will be talking about you. And then they’ll all walk by our house like Nancy’s in a glamour parade, pretending not to look. Shall I feed you dear?” Ruby asked, but Neela’s startled expression made her meekly hand over the bowl.
“This isn’t from the market you know. See that mango tree behind you, every year without fail she bears fruit. Eat, eat while you can. Soon you’ll be pregnant and then we can’t have you eating mangos can we? ”
Neela listened popping the tender cubes of orange flesh in to her mouth, wondering how much longer Xavier would be.
After the quick registered marriage, a small reception was held to celebrate Neela and Xavier’s union at a nearby hotel. Friends and family – all Xavier’s – blessed the couple. Drunk on wine they all insisted that the newly weds ‘enjoy’ themselves for a year but warned them not to wait too long before extending their branch of the family tree. The small glass of cheap red forced down her throat made Neela nod and smile, allowing one of Xavier’s many Uncles to whisk her away in to a drunken, disconcertingly close dance he insisted was the waltz. Soon the floor was swarming with couples. Neela, whose parents barely acknowledged each other in public, let alone touched or held hands, could not believe she was now one of the twirling, pirouetting men and women in dark suits
and candy wrapper dresses giggling around her.
By the third year of their marriage there was an air of expectancy wherever they went. Family members held their breath on meeting Neela and Xavier, smiling encouragingly in anticipation of an announcement. When none was made, the parting message they invariably received was
“Next time you must give us good news”
“Next time we meet there must be three of you, ok?”
“Of course” Neela would murmur “I’ll just dust off my baby growing kit.”
Xavier would respond with a languorous smile “What’s the rush?”
The front room had quietened down since the swapping of troubles. Some people, like Neela’s mother had fallen asleep, and were snoring softly. One woman had fished out a well thumbed Super Sudoku book from the depths of a wrinkled plastic bag, while another sat staring in to space mouthing a prayer as her fingers flicked rapidly over the smooth brown worry beads she held in her hand. Somewhere deep inside the house the sound of clanging vessels competed with the signature song of a late morning soap opera that Ruby religiously watched.
“Bastard. Cheating on such a nice girl. She should chop him up and make bad word curry out of his ding dong.”
Neela smiled, remembering Ruby’s outraged expostulations from yesterday’s episode and caught the disapproving look Super Sudoku Mami sent her way. Of course, what could a childless woman such as herself have to smile about?
By the fifth year of their marriage, anxious whispers played hide and seek, flitting between ears tufted in curly hair and hiding briefly in the deep recesses of cave like mouths. Theories were proposed and disposed of just as swiftly as Sarah Mendoza’s claims that she was naturally auburn. One theory was that Neela’s body sustained on curd rice was in need of some beef stew.
“She eats too many mangos” Philomena Paul whispered to Ruby at Sunday Mass “All that heat, she must be like a furnace – no chance for a baby in there. You should cut that tree down. I’ve told you a hundred times.”
Jesus was displeased went another hypothesis: Neela had not converted and her empty womb was no doubt a punishment from up above. Some sections of the family violently rejected this version though.
“Of course not” Ruby’s sister Rosy thundered in her best miracle prayer meeting voice “Jesus is a loving God. It must be one of their Gods –goonda thugs they are. Skulls, blood, twenty dagger and flame wielding arms – it’s all their doing.”
Xavier and Neela stood together at the centre of all speculation, mildly worried but optimistic. They were young after all. “What was the rush” Xavier would say with his trademark easygoing smile; a smile that had begun to irritate Neela. Perhaps Xavier felt there was no rush, but at thirty, the tick-tock of Neela’s biological clock was louder and more annoying than Ruby’s clattering Sunday best shoes. All around her young mothers smugly paraded their bonneted, smocked off-spring. At social gatherings, the absence of a crying baby stuck at her hip made her a social outcast. Other young mothers on discovering that she didn’t have children made polite excuses and went in search of other women who would empathise about cracked nipples and over amorous husbands. She was ‘that woman without children’ to the other residents of III Cross Street, many of whom had never particularly warmed to her given the nature of her arrival.
“No wonder she doesn’t have children” Lakshmi’s mother-in-law Janaki Mami said “What good girl would leave her parents to marry a Christian boy? It’s God’s way.”
Neela brushed aside her own doubts about having children and threw herself in to baby making with a vengeance. Wanting and liking children was irrelevant, she decided, it was just something she had to do. If for no other reason than to prove to every one – Xavier’s family, Janaki Mami, God and most of all herself – that she could. So while Xavier went ambling along at an unhurried pace, Neela spent each month neurotically counting. Counting to know when her next cycle was due to start. Counting to know which days she was most fertile. Counting to know how many times they had tried. Neela was constantly on high alert for a sign – any sign – of conception. Her hands would slyly edge beneath the pallu of her sari searching for her breasts, squeezing them for signs of tenderness. She followed fertility promoting diets, exercised and renounced mangos, giving away the richly textured fragrant fruits to family members every season, paranoid that the law of averages would ensure this was the one thing Philomena Paul was right about. Cramps were imagined and nausea was invented. Rumbling gas, headaches and general fatigue were all attributed to her phantom pregnancy. And then it would appear. A tiny red flag that defiantly waved itself in her face. Ruby always knew when ‘the curse’ as she quaintly referred to it came visiting. She could tell from the slight sag in Neela’s shoulders and the small frown that took residence on her forehead for those four days. Ruby would remain uncharacteristically silent and place a comforting arm around Neela’s shoulders. Their relationship had changed over the years. Neela accepted her mother-in-law’s rambunctious nature and propensity for crying when watching Horlicks commercials, and knew how much of herself Ruby held back in an attempt to slowly win her over. She was grateful for her benign manner when it came to the grandchildren missing from her life. In spite of all the prodding and barbed insinuations from friends and family, Ruby refused to turn against her daughter-in-law.
“Find Xavier a nice girl. This one’s plumbing is out of order. Kaput.” Ruby’s sister Rose would mutter when she knew Neela was within listening range.
“She’s like my daughter. A mother would never treat a daughter like that.” Ruby would protest.
“At least call that mother of hers, ask her if there’s anything wrong in her horoscope. I’m sure if that daughter-in-law breaks a coconut before some monkey god’s shrine everything will be alright”
Neela was not keen, years had passed since she and her mother had met. But Ruby was surprisingly adamant.
“She’s your mother after all. It’s sin enough I’ve let you two be apart for so long, Jesus forgive me. It’s high time you sorted things out.”
“I thought you were my Mother. That’s what you told me when I first came here.”
Ruby’s face crumpled briefly before evening out
“Of course I’m your mother. But she is too. Now no more arguing. We’re going to meet your Mother and that’s that.”
When Neela saw the glint in her mother’s eye she realised what prompted her to let them inside her home. Curiosity. They all sat in the living room, Neela and her mother exchanging questions and answers like two acquaintances meeting by chance on an overnight train or at a bus stop. Neela learnt that her two siblings worked in call centres and were married with children, her father’s diabetes was worse and their neighbours of twenty five years were moving to Delhi to live with their son and daughter-in-law. Neela did not know where to begin. What should she tell her mother about? Peter Uncle and his fondness for rum? Chandroo Mama next door, who sometimes fetched towels from the clothes line naked as the day he was born? That the stray kitten Neela fed everyday sometimes brought her presents of dead mice and small birds? Instead Neela told her mother about Xavier’s recent promotion and that they were planning to install an air conditioner in their bedroom. Ruby, puzzled by the dispassionate exchange of information stepped right in.
“Isn’t it time you and I became grandmothers? These two kids have been doing, doing but nothing has happened yet. Maybe you have some suggestions?”
Neela’s mother’s suggestion was God. And so Neela found herself visiting astrologers and god men, temples and mystics, seers and prophets. Offerings were made, prayers were said, fasts were undertaken. The religious beliefs and practices that Neela had cast aside for so many years were re-learnt. But still the Gods refused to smile down at them. Perhaps it was because her heart wasn’t really in any of it. Perhaps Rose Aunty was right, Neela’s Gods were a vicious bunch who were punishing her for trying to corrupt the gene pool. Maybe that was just one of the many things she had done which earned her this punishment. Perhaps God had a journal tucked under his silk pillow in which on Neela’s page there was a list of all the terrible things she had done till then. Pinching her brother when he was a baby and making him cry, smiling at other people’s children while thinking to herself how ugly they were, not giving up her seat on a crowded bus for a pregnant woman, for thinking that the Upasagar ran some sort of religious rent boys racket. Her life was a series of bad thoughts and deeds that now needed karmic addressing.
It was close to eleven before it was announced that the Upasagar was ready to see his first client. As though playing musical chairs in reverse, Neela’s mother shot out of her seat grabbing the plastic basket that sat by her feet in one fluid movement that one would not think her capable of considering her vast girth. The Upasagar’s assistant, decidedly more timid than his colleague who had made the last announcement was startled and looked ready to rebuke this appropriation of the first slot until he saw the steely look in Neela’s mother’s eyes and the currency note that protruded discreetly from the horoscopes she held in her hand. The assistant took the horoscope and gestured for her to follow him. Neela stood up, smiling apologetically at the glaring faces of the others, drained of the sympathy they had previously shown them.
Neela followed her mother through the door and found herself on the edge of a square courtyard, which all other rooms in the house seemed to be centred around. The assistant turned abruptly in to a door on his right and Neela found herself in a room lit only by small oil wick lamps. Like the rest of the house, the Hanuman motif was featured here too and from stone statuettes to pencil sketches to small laminated photographs of His most famous and powerful temples, everywhere she looked Neela could only see rounded cheeks and a curled tail. When the Upasagar finally turned his attention towards them, Neela almost expected him to share his Lord’s facial features and was disappointed when he presented an angular face that was dominated by a sharp nose and jutting cheekbones.
Neela watched as her mother took out a large brass plate and arranged an assortment of fruits, sweets and other auspicious offerings on it including a plain white envelope that bulged ever so slightly before folding herself in to a traditional prostration. Neela had been to enough sessions by now, to know that she was expected to follow suit and keep her mouth shut, leaving all talking to her mother. The Upasagar ignored them both and the scraping obeisance they offered, picked out the envelope and with a flick of his hand instructed the waiting assistant to remove the plate and leave. The Upasagar then proceeded to stare intently at the nine square grids that supposedly told the story of Neela’s past and controlled her future, before closing his eyes in a meditative pose. A good ten minutes passed like this and Neela wondered if there was some sleeping the Upasagar had left over to finish. In a way there was little difference between the doctors and the God men Neela visited. One lot robed themselves in orange while the other preferred white. But they all seemed to have learned their enigmatic eye closing from the same place almost always insisted that if more money was spent better results could be achieved. And they always ending with the same statement ‘Trust in God.’ But God didn’t want to help. Or perhaps he couldn’t. After all what could God do about low sperm motility and a hostile womb?
The Upasagar suddenly opened his eyes and glared at Neela.
“You have killed a snake” he said.
Neela had been counting the number of Hanuman pictures and figurines in the room till then. 36, she mentally noted and paused in her count to reply.
“No, I haven’t” Neela replied, wincing as her mother discreetly but fiercely pinched her forearm – a tactic she often had used when Neela as an adamant child would refuse to sing or recite nursery rhymes before pretend-eager audiences of bored relatives. The Upasagar, perhaps knew there was little use in talking to Neela and conducted the rest of the conversation with her mother. He spoke hazily and mentioned something about a curse Neela had pending over from a previous lifetime.
“There is a temple on the outskirts of the city with a powerful shrine to Nagaraj. Take your daughter there and ask her to beg for forgiveness. Roll on the ground, cry and tear at your hair. But beg with all your heart for forgiveness. That is the most important thing: total contrition.”
Killed a snake? She might have believed him if he said she had killed a monkey.
That night, Xavier laid next to Neela, his body a badly drawn ‘c’ that quivered with every wheezing snore he took.. His mouth was ajar, and like the bedroom window which let in a stream of silvery moonlight, Neela noted a trickle of glittering drool that crept towards the embroidered pillow from his gaping mouth. Perhaps it would be easier to just give up trying, resign themselves to a childless existence. Twice a month seeking lips and probing hands visited Neela. Everything happened according to a hitherto unspoken but agreed upon plan. Two minutes. Instant noodle sex. Cursory touches and the inevitable thrust. A moments respite before the lights would come on forcing Neela to shield her eyes and lift her legs, coaxing creation. Her thighs like flabby cranes on a construction site that nothing would ever be built on. Neela could never sleep after sex; an act she once used to euphemistically refer to as making love. But how could she expect that after ten years, a few thrusts and a grope could create anything other than discomfort and vague feeling of annoyance? What did the Hanuman Upasagar think of the death of one’s libido?
Thirsty, Neela got up and reached out for the small bottle of water that always sat next to her reading lamp. It was empty. Xavier had guzzled the contents of the bottle after they were done while she had told him about the morning at the Upasagars, a corner of her mind wondering if this would be chalked up as another sin to punish: talking of religious matters in a semi-naked state. He had once smoked, laying back and blowing out wonky smoke rings, while she edged to the corner of the bed scared the ash would fall and singe her skin. He had quit when a doctor told him smoking was known to cause infertility. Just like that. After years of trying to make him give up his thirty a day habit, he dispensed of it immediately for a child that they might never conceive. Her former chain smoking husband now drank water as a post coital treat. As Neela left the bedroom she looked at his face, and lazily contemplated smothering him with her pillow. What was the Hindu pantheon’s punishment for being a husband killer she wondered? Or maybe if the husband was of another faith, one was rewarded.
In a few hours the silence and darkness would be turned out along with the previous day’s garbage only to be replaced by the incessant bird call of their doorbell and the non stop monologue their maid Karuthamma kept up as she worked. Neela opened the fridge door and reached inside for the tall Whisky bottle that now served as a water jug. She drank straight from the bottle and stood before the open door of the refrigerator allowing the mysterious vapours that emanated from inside to cool to her body. Neela shut the door but kept the bottle with her as she went to stand by the grilled door that led to the backyard. Neela peered through the dust and grime smothered grill. It was a full moon night and the mango tree was bathed in an eerie light. It was mango season and the branches of the tree were heavy with swollen fruit, greenish and tinged in red and yellow. The leaves long and dark green, exuding a raw mango smell. Neela inhaled the fragrance. It had been years since she’d had a mango.
Neela worked the latch and cringed as it squawked like a rusty parrot. She paused, waiting for the sound to wake someone up, but the house remained still. Neela stood beneath the tree and looked about for a rock. She found the jagged edge of a brick and aimed it carefully. She watched as it arced gracefully through the air and landed on its target. The mango fell a few feet from Neela with a soft thud. She picked it up and rubbed the fat fruit absent mindedly against her sagging stomach. Neela sat down at the base of the tree and bit in to the thick, leathery skin of the fruit, her tongue flicking out in an attempt to stem the flowing rivulets of juice that burst out. Neela greedily devoured the mango until all that was left was ragged slivers of chewed skin and the seed covered in matted bits of flesh. Neela sighed, unsatisfied and blindly searched about for another rock. The tree shuddered and shivered, swaying imperceptibly in the wind as it sacrificed another of its off spring.