There once lived a girl in our town who was extremely shy. She wasn’t the only one of us who was like that; back then, all of us girls were shy, by which I mean we had to be shy, and the men were tough and that was just how it was. Before we got married, we learned to cook and clean and keep house and sit with our legs crossed and our ankles covered with our long skirts. After we got married, we cooked and cleaned and kept house and went to bed all night with our husbands, and soon we began to have babies. The babies looked sweet enough, but something about the angle of their jaws or the way their hair grew back from their temples would make us think of their fathers and make us feel bad about our lives, which we knew, in a vague sort of way, weren’t very good. Still we wouldn’t say a thing to anyone, and when our men came home, we’d cover our heads with our pallus and duck into our kitchens. That’s how shy we were.
But this girl, Sasa, was shyer than any of the other girls in town. For years before she was born, her mother had been childless. Of course, her in-laws weren’t happy that there was no bouncing baby because, of course, without a bouncing baby there could no bouncing baby boy. People’s affairs are their own and I don’t believe we gossiped in our town any more than in other towns, but we’d all heard of women who disappeared if they didn’t have the right kind of baby—the day after they disappeared, the in-laws would open the windows to let out a bad smell, or carry a suspiciously large urn out of the house.
So this mother made the rounds of all the temples in town to pray for a boy, and when she was done she started back at the first one. We all prayed a good deal in our town, beginning with the pre-sunrise prayer through the nightfall prayer with as many as seven other prayerful sessions in between, but Sasa’s mother, she outprayed everyone. For years she labored around temples on her knees and cracked coconuts and offered up quantities of bananas pierced with burning sticks of incense. Without questioning them, she did all sorts of other things too. She hung bells on poles, threw coins into tanks, tied lengths of twine around the trunks of trees, and wrote her name on kites and watched them whip away on passing breezes.
For all that trouble, she got Sasa.
At the birth, the baby popped out of her mother quickly enough, tough and stringy though the mother’s insides must have been: she was middle-aged by then and probably quite embarrassed to find herself, at that age, flat on her back having a baby. The first sign that something was out of the ordinary was when the nurse smacked the baby’s bottom to make it cry. All it did was give a sort of gurgle.
Smack again, gurgle again. And in the following months, there was not even that.
I remember going with my mother to see the baby. I was five, and the baby was a few months old. We were neighbors, you see. Sasa’s father was very rich, and her house was very big and stood in our sun and cast a permanent shadow on our little one. The baby’s room was beautiful, with brocade curtains and rugs that felt like velvet beneath the soles of my bare feet, and the baby was beautiful, too, her cheeks pink with health and her lips as exquisite as a brass figurine’s. She lay on her back in her crib in perfect repose, her little arms straight down her sides. But when giant bluebottles, pestilences in the humid summers of the town, whined and buzzed about the crib, landed on the tip of her nose, and took leisurely strolls over her face, she didn’t wriggle, or screw up her face and cry, or raise a hand to brush them away. She just lay there, smiling a small, trustful smile.
“How still she is!” said one of the mothers who’d come to see the baby, her eyes on the fly.
“So quiet, like a rabbit!” said another mother.
“Yes, yes, a rabbit!” chorused yet more mothers, and they didn’t brush away the flies just to see if the baby would do it for herself.
“Little Rabbit!” her mother whispered too, and lumbered to the crib, her belly still tumescent and her face filled with puzzlement, and she pinched the baby’s cheeks—a little too hard, it seemed to me—between her brown fingers, just as if they were a bunny’s ears. From then on, we all called the baby “Sasa” for rabbit although her given name, Abhineeta, was far more beautiful and ambitious.
When Sasa was little, things seemed to go all right. She’d dart about all day in the garden of the big house, pretty and pettable and quiet, her soft brown hair tumbling down her back or in two cascades by her ears, and if anyone came in sight, she’d leap behind her mother and clutch her legs, making deep crescent marks with her sharp little nails. Then she grew and grew, and suddenly she wasn’t pretty any more. Something had gone amiss with her face though it was hard to say exactly what. It was as if there had been a disagreement among her features and some of them had decided to grow more rapidly than others. Her feet got rather large too, and her arches had already, by the time she was eleven, regrettably fallen. You’ll understand the importance of this when I tell you that, around here, when a boy’s parents come to see a prospective bride, before they even sit down, they’re sizing up the height of the arches of her feet: at less than an inch, they’re shaking their heads, and at zero, they’re running out. So Sasa’s prospects were already low, as low as her arches, by the time she was eleven.
On top of this, Sasa didn’t say a word until she was twelve, and even then, she didn’t make any sense. Her first word, which she said in a soft, sibilant whisper, was “Hapsibisism!” It wasn’t a word anyone knew.
Now it’s true the language of our town doesn’t exactly sound harmonious. In fact, people who come visiting say that it sounds like fireworks, and yelling it all the time is how our men get their thick necks and barrel chests. Even the most innocuous words sound threatening. Take the word “tandul.” To properly enunciate it, you have to place your tongue in the center of your palate and twang it rapidly and eject the two syllables like gunshots, but the word only means hello. And take the word “kachchadi.” When it’s said properly, the speaker appears to be suffering the worst kind of epileptic fit, but the word only means “beauty.”
But our language never sounded as muddled as when Sasa tried to speak it.
Through all these years, Sasa’s mother hadn’t had an easy time. She’d kept herself together by making up stories: her little girl was an avatar of a Goddess! she said, and was going to save the world one day. She was a genius in mathematics! she said, she totaled numbers in her head all day. But Sasa’s gibberish was the last straw. Even her mother gave up and took her to see some doctors. The doctors all made Sasa open her little pink mouth as wide as she could and stick her tongue out as far as she could. They shone torches along its length and examined her throat and her larynx and her trachea and her pharynx, and finally they said, “There’s nothing wrong with her vocal equipment. She’s just, you know, extremely shy. Not a bad thing for a girl to be.”
“What do you mean, extremely shy?” the mother asked.
“The voice works likes this,” said the knowledgeable doctors. “When a thought forms in the brain, it sends a signal to the lungs. Then air rushes through the trachea and into the larynx and makes the vocal chords vibrate, and each vibration sends a snort of the air into the pharynx, which begins the sound wave that leaves the mouth as the voice. But for extremely shy people? Their brains simply freeze. They just can’t think, and so their words come strained through a stickyferous substance and sound like utter gibberish. You could say her tongue is tied.”
“Whatever will become of my little rabbit,” the mother wept when people were around. But she wasn’t so nice when no one was looking. For instance she wouldn’t call Sasa for meals just to see if she would ask to eat (she didn’t), and she’d lock her in her room for days at a time. And, of course, she never bothered to send the girl to school.
We would all have forgotten Sasa existed, except for this: every day at noon, without fail, she’d appear at the window of her room and whiffle her nose and stare at the street from out of her heavy-lidded eyes. There was nothing to see from her window but a bit of the dome of the corner temple and the whitewashed wall of the neighboring house, yet she’d stand there for hours, looking out. For years she did this until her head grazed the top of the window and her heels spilled over the edge of the sill, always in the same clothes, a brown pinafore over a brownish blouse. And the window bars that framed her were cream-ish, the curtains beige-ish, and the sky grey-ish, all of this making for such a drab-ish scene that people stopped in their tracks just to look at her.
I could see Sasa from a window of my own house. I had the best view of her, so maybe I’m the only one who saw the faraway look that sometimes appeared on her broad features, as though she wanted to cut through the window and fly away.
I didn’t blame her. I wanted to, too. I was seventeen and not pretty either, but I made up for it all the ways I could. I’d figured out a trick to disguise my lumpy thighs and another to make my lips look full, and spent hours every day coaxing my arches higher with my mother’s rolling pin. I already knew it was better to have one’s wits about one and play to one’s strengths, especially if one didn’t enjoy the care of house and babies, which I didn’t. What allure was there in clean kitchen counters and neat beds and mewling babies?
I was soon to be married and anxious about the part where my new husband would come into the bedroom on the wedding night. I sensed it mattered what I did, but I didn’t know what to do and all my mother would say was that I should give him a glass of milk with a dot of turmeric in it. “Why?’ I asked but she was vague in a sneaky sort of way. “And after that?” I asked. “Surely the warm beverage is not all he’ll want?” But she cunningly remembered something she had to do right away. The man was a carpenter. That was all I knew. Would he smell of sawdust, and would I soon, too?
By and by I got married and moved two houses down from my parents. My husband did smell of sawdust and soon, I did too, and the house, and the babies when they came. I had two babies in two years—naturally, with the carpenter pounding away at me all night—and they both had his hooked nose and knobble-knees. Sometimes I caught myself stroking the babies’ knees and noses while they swilled their milk and wondering whether I shouldn’t bend them straight with the kitchen tongs? My belly hung down to my knees and there was always something on the stove that needed stirring.
It was after the third baby that I started going a little kinky in my thinking. Grew a little careless in the discharge of my wifely responsibilities: the burdens and pressures of minding home and children are not well understood or appreciated is my excuse. It started with me giving occasional nips and tweaks to the softest parts of the babies’ flesh and stepping back to observe the varieties of ways in which they responded, and progressed from there. For sport, I’d put their goo in a finger bowl on the floor and make them race for it, and tip the garbage into the back room and shut the door fast against the reek. Before you go passing judgment on me, let me add: it brought me no joy, only a temporary abatement of the tedium. And the carpenter? He looked the other way as long as I cooked him his favorite things—hearts of jackfruit and pickled plantains and jellied milk—and let him pound away at me all he wanted.
When I’d just had the fourth baby—this one had the nose and knees, too—a man came up our street one day, holding a little black suitcase in one hand and a black bag on his back, and knocked on the door of the Sasa’s house. He wore skinny black pants, and a black shirt made of something silky that set off his heavy head and his crown of thick black hair. A small but opulent moustache clung to his upper lip like a leech.
Few strangers came to our little town, tucked precariously in the Ghats as it is, and I was bored enough for any diversion, so I tethered the babies to the dining table and anchored myself at the window to watch. When Sasa’s mother – a lazy, old thing by then – opened her door, the man spoke in a deep, deep voice that emanated from somewhere behind his sculpted belly and carried all the way to my waiting ears.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “I hear that a young lady named Abhineeta is being raised within this establishment?”
“Yes, indeed,” said the old lady. I swear she was simpering. “And what may you want with her?”
“If you are agreeable,” the man said. “I would like to offer my services to oversee her education.”
“What?” said the mother.
“Within the four walls of your very own home,” he added. He thrust out his right leg to highlight the contoured muscles of his thigh, drew a tiny tube from his pocket, squeezed something onto the tips of his fingers, and massaged it into his mustache. When I saw the sensuous strokes of his fingers, back and forth and forth and back on the little thing, something fluttered deep inside me, something that felt like life.
Now Sasa was sixteen then, too old for lessons, so the man was clearly after something else, besides not looking one bit like the tutor type he claimed to be. But the sad truth is that every woman, even a lazy, old one, craves attention from men, even if men have only ever given her a middling sort of life. Why, even Sasa poked her head out from behind the curtains when she heard the man’s deep, deep voice, so unlike our men’s coarse barks, and lolloped to the door on her large flat feet.
So the mother told the man that he was engaged, and he moved into the big house that same day, having come prepared to stay. His name was Nalin. No one knew where he was from or why, really, he’d come.
It dawned on me that my two older children were ready for education so I rummaged around for them, passed a damp cloth across their cheeks, and arranged for them to join Sasa. Of course, I went with them—and in the new schoolroom at the big house, at sweet little desks with space under the top for pencils and notebooks, we embarked on a journey up the mountain of Knowledge, and through the dense woods of History and the fragrant fields of Literature.
Nalin spoke eloquently. He told us about Mahatma Gandhi, who, he said, was a famous general in the Mughal army who they tortured and killed because he tried to elope with the empress; the Dandi Salt March, which, he said, happened in Egypt thousands of years ago to protest the large amount of salt used to make the Sphinx; and the mountains of the Himalayas, where, he said, yetis still roamed and ate little children.
That is, he seemed very knowledgeable though, honestly, I wouldn’t know—I’d always sensed my brain was sharp, but it had only ever been called upon to figure out the change. I just liked to hear him talk. I made sure he had panoramic views of what remained of my curves, and knew he’d noticed them from the way he wet his lips when he looked at me, and the way he stretched out his long legs in an open V after lessons were done and sang. How he loved to sing! For an hour at a time—longer—he could sing. With not a note of accompanying music, he could sing. He swelled his belly and gripped the arms of his chair and sang. He sang in all kinds of tongues and in all sorts of tunes. It was clear he’d been around.
He talked a lot about himself too, and told us all about his biggest dream: to set up the best bed factory in the world one day. He told us how much he loved beds and everything to do with them: their history, design, making, size, balance, heft, trim, frames, slats, bases, headboards, springs, posters, canopies, mattresses, bolsters, pads, sheets, pillows, quilts, nets, throws, blankets, skirts, and, of course, their uses.
He looked straight at me when he said the bit about the uses. I looked back at him, smolderingly.
And why not? I’ve always been prescient. I was feeling the winds of change coming to the town. For quite a while I’d been feeling done with the business of being shy. I was lucky that my husband was a bit of an oaf—all that sawing, I suppose—and didn’t get in my way, but that could change any time. My life dangled by a thread. So I set about making Nalin fall in lust with me, and waited to see what would happen.
What happened was, on Sasa’s seventeenth birthday, Nalin went to her parents and asked to marry her. She couldn’t do better, he said, given her limitations. He made a demand: the father had to finance his bed factory. Obviously this had been his plan all along: everyone for miles around knew Sasa’s father had money.
While Nalin spoke, Sasa’s father looked stunned and scratched his head, and when he was finished, he said “Sasa who?” He’d quite forgotten he had a daughter. The mother, though, sprang to life and tried to lower her bulk—she’d grown extremely fat—and kneel by Sasa’s side. Prudently, she gave up the effort, and took Sasa’s hands in hers.
“Dearest Abhineeta!” she said, to impress Nalin with her loving nature. “Now, at least, you must speak! Do you desire to spend the rest of your life with this good fellow?”
Upon which Sasa made the following prickly pronouncement: “Chaeikrakrakr!”
“All right then,” said the mother, and washed her hands of her.
And Sasa and Nalin were married. The wedding was lavish, and everyone in the town went to it because we all loved celebrations. In fact, there was a celebration in the town almost every day, even for occasions you might consider odd, and we all went to all of them, which should have made us tight with each other but didn’t.
After the wedding, Nalin took Sasa to the sweet little cottage marked out for them, on the very top of a darling hill in the center of town where morning mists meandered like lace pocket-handkerchiefs among the emerald trees, and bougainvillea bushes blushed hot pink with blossoms. In the tawny light of the setting sun, up the quaint cobbled path and to the quaint red door of the cottage, the newlyweds clattered in a horse carriage. The horse was white and the ride romantic enough. Someone had marked the threshold in alternating stripes of yellow and red for good luck. Effortlessly, Nalin picked up the frail girl-woman, Sasa, in his arms and set her down on the other side.
What a fairy tale. It always is, when it begins.
In the bedroom, someone had done up the bed in sumptuous red brocade and scattered fragrant rose petals on it. Sasa blushed prettily and covered her cheeks with her disproportionately large hands. Then it was their wedding night. Trembling ever so slightly, Sasa handed the glass of milk to Nalin, the drop of turmeric having spread like a little yellow lake on its surface. What the function of the beverage was, she didn’t know. Nor did her mother or her mother before her or any of the other women and their mothers, but this much we all knew: it had to be done, or else.
Horrors! His face crimson, Nalin leaped at Sasa, knocked the glass clean out of her hand, knocked her flat on the bed, set her clothes in wild disarray, and began pounding away at her. Afterwards she lay still, her naked body covered delicately with a sheet. “Wa tsa-tsa!” she said, sounding like air hissing from a deflating balloon.
Other than for Sasa, things worked out pretty well for everyone. Every morning Nalin would pound away at Sasa, go to work in his new factory, drop in on me for his lunchtime romp, go home in the evening, and pound away at Sasa all night. The man just couldn’t help it. He had this strong libido, always needing to go at something like a bull.
Turned out, his pounding was indistinguishable from my carpenter’s. That is, there was not the discovery in our relationship that I was expecting to make. At the time, though, it did worlds for my self-esteem. Did my husband know about Nalin and me? I had no idea but, as a precaution, I kept him stunned with his favorite foods—hearts of jackfruit and pickled plantains and jellied milk—and he said nothing even when our fifth was born without the family kinks in his nose and knees.
The months passed and passed. Every morning, Sasa rose at six and cooked breakfast and dusted the furniture. Then she took a broom and mop to the floors, made the beds, swept the cobwebs, and cooked lunch. Then she washed up, and weeded the garden and watered the plants, picked the flowers and the vegetables, hosed down the garden path, cleaned the coop and fed the chickens, cooked dinner and washed up, and finished off the day by climbing up the roof to sweep the rain water from the gutters.
A girl has to do something.
In particular she spent an inordinate amount of time polishing the kitchen counter, as if she thought that a magic genie would pop out of it as in the famous story of Cinderella and the Magic Lamp.
I was there when Nalin told the story in our Hour of Literature. There once was a girl called Cinderella, he said, with skin white as snow and lips red as roses, who spent all her free time growing beanstalks in the kitchen fireplace. Why, he didn’t know, but he had a good guess. “She was afraid of the beast who kept her imprisoned, you see,” Nalin said. “She wanted to climb up the beanstalk and escape through the chimney.” One day Cinderella found a lamp in the fireplace. It was dirty, so she began cleaning and polishing it – out of force of habit – until it shone. From the lamp burst a genie, dressed in billowing green robes speckled with gold, with an ugly face but kind eyes. The genie told Cinderella that he was really a prince who’d been cursed to sleep in the lamp forever, and would she please kiss him? So Cinderella kissed the genie. There was a puff of green smoke and when it cleared it became evident that the genie had turned, according to Nalin, into a frog, and a rather small one at that. “And so Cinderella kept working in the kitchen until she died,” he ended, firmly.
Maybe Sasa didn’t believe him. Maybe she thought that couldn’t be all, after the trouble Cinderella had gone to. Maybe that’s why she polished the counter endlessly, and croaked what sounded like:
Magic genie in the counter!
Make my life become all right-er!”
As an incantation, it had no punch; it didn’t even rhyme. Worse, genies don’t exist. The thing to do is to be your own genie.
Then, as these things go, Sasa started having babies, first one, then another and another and another and another, a slew of babies, all mean, who proved what I’ve always said: children aren’t the sweet things they’re made out to be. Though, if you ask me, being mean is better any day than being shy. When Sasa sang lullabies, the babies speed-crawled into the bathroom to get away from her, and when she spoke, they mocked her. “Did you just say something?” they said.
By and by it came to my attention that Nalin was hiring only women in his factory, red-lipped, nimble-fingered women with weaving and sewing—and presumably other assorted—skills. “That explains,” I thought, “why he reeks of a different perfume every afternoon.” Confused and unhappy, I would often steal up to the cottage and watch Sasa’s fleshy back wing to and fro as she cleaned the counter with her white rubbing cloth, knee-deep in squalling babies. I wondered how much longer our state of affairs would last.
The funeral was all Nalin’s idea. Zipping up his pants one afternoon—for he still claimed me every afternoon—he said, “Why don’t we have a funeral for Sasa?”
Prosperity sat ill on Nalin. I looked at him with new eyes and was struck by how much like a well-stuffed roll of bedding he now looked. His eyes were flecked with more red than ever, his veins spread thick as roots across the backs of his hands, and the hands themselves had a faint tremor he was always trying, in vain, to conceal.
He was perfectly serious. “She may as well be dead, no?” he said. “A funeral will make it official. Benefits will ensue, I am sure.”
He wasted no time. By evening, he had sent invitations to the whole town. “The honor of your presence is requested,” the cards said, “at an event to commemorate Abhineeta (“Sasa”) who shall henceforth be deemed dead.” Below the opening sentence was this little verse:
Shy thing, you said, how her head she must bow!
She looks so meek, has a voice like a crow!
Still is too meek, she’s gone to zero!
Come one, come all, let’s let her go!
Everyone came. Nalin stood at the door of the cottage in a tasteful silk sherwani and gave each guest a rosebud as they entered. Sasa sat on the sofa in the drawing room, dressed beautifully. At first, the guests were awkward—the occasion was unusual after all—but when they saw that Sasa was calm, they relaxed and conversation began to flow.
After a while, Nalin tapped a spoon against a glass and called for attention. “Where I come from,” he said, “I would now say a few words about the departed. So here I go.” And he told a story about how Sasa would, when they were first married, say what sounded like Wo fo haspisapisapisapisapi when what she wanted to say was “Good morning.”
“Wo fo haspisapisapisapisapi,” Sasa’s fourth-oldest girl repeated in a childish treble.
“Wo fo haspisapisapi whatever,” yelled everyone. The stories raged on.
All this happened decades ago. Change has come to even our little town. Girls zip about on speedy scooters, their hair flying behind them like black flags. My granddaughters sass me and I get back at them with what dignity I can muster. I’m old now and gone slow. I sit hunched in my armchair on the veranda all day, my eyelids like little rolled scrolls.
I believe it was the evening of Sasa’s funeral that change began to come to the town. It was that evening that I decided to break with Nalin. (The bad part is: when I confessed to my carpenter about Nalin, he said he had known all along but hadn’t said a word because he was afraid the good food would end. Could I please stop being sentimental and go back to the way things were?)
That evening, Sasa rose and lumbered to the kitchen halfway through the party. I followed her, and saw her rubbing the counter and muttering a variation of her counter song:
Magic genie in the counter
In my next birth not a rabbit-er!
I shouted, “Run, Sasa, run!” and thrust the wad of money I’d brought with me towards her.
But the kitchen was empty. She had already gone. I thought I saw flecks of green and gold flying about the kitchen, but they found shreds of her sari caught in the window, and large flat footprints going down the hill and out of town. Genies shouldn’t have to use windows, so I suppose Sasa did make a run for it.