April 16, 2021
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Book Extract

Bent Over Backwards

Extracts from Geetanjali Shree's novel Mai, shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award.

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Bent Over Backwards
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Mai
By Geetanjali Shree
Kali For Women Rs. 200; 208 pages

Chapter 28

We had grown up and could not stay a 'we' any longer. We could come together on the same side but we also realized that we had our separate truths. We realized that the soundlessness that surrounded the vast terrain of pleasure and pain, bondage and freedom of everyday life may be the same in principle but was a different experience for each person. It had a certain colour for me, for us women, which it did not for Subodh or for babu. Indeed I was afraid of it because it stretched forth from before my birth. That silence had become mine from before there was me.

The past is that god - or devil - whom we cannot worship but who is present everywhere, surrounding us inside and out, holding us in its clutches. We are merely a miniscule part of it. We are helpless.

I was helpless from my childhood. Helpless in my desperation to save mai, helpless in not being able to save her, and then helpless before our frustration and that resounding silence that was our history, mine, and Subodh’s, separately.

Subodh believed that we had successfully punctured that silence and become free. He was happy to see my self-sufficiency - I lived alone, drove a car, painted. I had gone to England and it had been like a homecoming. Subodh wanted me to come there to stay. When it was past sunset in this big city of our big land and it became necessary to escort a girlfriend back to her place, he would say, ‘Suni, we have none of these problems there, you can go out anytime at night, sit anywhere in a cafe, meet anyone. One is mobile.

He was after me to come to England. We would have an exhibition of my paintings. Something would work out. There was so much scope. And here, half the time here goes in preparations, half in covering tracks. What is left for work?

Babu’s face was lined with wrinkles. Where is Subodh taking Sunaina now? If she goes there who will be left to be saved from ruin?

Mai still did not voice disapproval. Life keeps carving its own paths. Let it. Let them.

We were after her, saying, ‘Mai, you come too. Subodh has a home there - wouldn’t you like to see it?’ Babu had however made it clear without saying as much that one doesn’t spend thousands of rupees without cause. Subodh had gone to study, and that was different.

When the rationale for my going had been agreed upon, babu’s wrinkles became deeper and deeper but he couldn’t say ‘no’ even to himself. Subodh had dizzy spells, someone from home should be with him for his care, so Sunaina should be the able to go.

‘Yes, that’s right,’ he would say, ‘who is with him? Someone from home should be there.’ ‘But there’s nothing to worry about,’ he’d say again, ‘I too have dizzy spells if it gets too hot, but we should ask the doctor anyway.’ ‘But we should not get involved with a doctor,’ he’d say yet again. ‘The doctor has to earn his living so he’ll certainly say there’s an illness and make someone perfectly normal into an invalid. Subodh should come home and mai will make hurt all right. Bring him back with you. There’s no one to give him good food there.’ And then finally he'd say, ‘Write to him to come home, there’s no need to go at all.’

But those times when he could have stopped me from going were gone for good. He came to see me off at the airport. Mai sent besan laddus. And a letter: ‘Write all the news quickly. Health is everything. If you find the kind of sweater you got for Bhondu in a sale, get two or three, it pleases everyone because they are foreign. My blessings...’

Babu kept saying his beads in the taxi - 'Turiyatit baba... baba. .baba…’ He panicked when he saw that travelling with me would be labourers going to the Middle East, unemployed and in search of jobs. ‘...baba baba... there are no restrictions even on planes. God...’ He told the passport control, ‘My daughter is going. Alone. Please ask one of your officers to take care.’ I flashed a pitying smile and shrugged my shoulders helplessly. I felt I should hurry up and disappear inside before I too began to see wolves everywhere.

Before going inside I forced babu to go to the airport restaurant and ordered two glasses of orange juice. Babu drank it up but scolded me as well, ‘Why are you so restless? Think of baba, peacefully.’ When he got up he told the waiter that the tea had been slightly sour and had not even been hot!

That was my first time on an aeroplane. It took me no time at all to become an excited little girl again. But how nice it would have been if, instead of the sheikh next to me, I could have had mai. I would talk to her about everything I saw. Look down here, the ocean on this side, the ocean on that. Strange, isn’t it, we on top of the clouds, and the sun playing below? The clouds as solid as if they had been the earth? There is Dubai, here the West Asian desert, Jordan, Kuwait, look, the whole atlas spread out! The snow on the mountains below is covering them like a white sheet. Then the sea again, Istanbul, the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Lintz - mai, the horrible Hitler’s country - Germany, Alps - look at the greenery - London. Taste a little, I would say, this is champagne, just a little. We would fly together.

I have had dreams like this from childhood that keep circling like clouds and enter the house through doors and windows. Some even burst into rain.

Childhood was past and dreams were clouds gathering and dispersing and mai was a burden which we had been carrying around, sometimes advancing carefully, sometimes stopping when tired, sometimes wishing to put down the bundle in despair, unable to do any of the things easily.

Mai waited for us with babu at the house. We kept going back, sometimes alone, sometimes together. The house was peaceful with babu’s guests visiting, bringing their wives along. They would be delighted to meet us because we had set foot on the hallowed land of England. Subodh was definitely a hero but I was no less a heroine. For my English, my travels, my freedom, and because all these were mine and not their own daughters’.

We came again and again. Because mai would be lonely. Babu stayed out the whole day. How could the fields and wells make up for the company of humans?

It was sometime during those days that Vikram came home with me. He was at work on a field survey in a nearby village. Subodh was not there but I invited Vikram home. Babu might still have tried to say that Subodh’s friend had come on work, but Heinz was also working on the same project and staying in some guest house in the city. He came to pick up Vikram every morning and I went along too some days.

Babu could find no excuse for Vikram staying with us. He told mai that when both the boys were working together why did they both not stay in the same guest house?

I crackled like lightning- ‘Can my friends not stay here?’

Babu’s tongue ran away with him - 'Peeeople...people do not like it... you should not call a man.. a fr...a friend.’ And finding himself inadequate to the delicate demands of the situation he whined to mai - ‘You should tell her. The children are old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong now.’

And he sneaked away without meeting anyone’s eyes.

Mai did not say anything. She would give Vikram his dinner with affection. She threw away his torn bag quietly and made another one exactly like that of strong denim with a zipper and everything. When Vikram was leaving he asked me for a glass of water and as soon as I turned around he bent to touch mai’s feet.

Vikram left and babu kept ranting and raving, repeating to mai, ‘It is gelling difficult to even go out now. People keep asking all kinds of questions. At least they should not go out together in this town.’

He avoided me and left mai’s side when he saw me. If he didn’t see me he would look around carefully and reach mai. ‘I hope you’ve told them. I hope you have forbidden them.’ Just then I would appear and he would suddenly tell mai in a loud voice, ‘Stitch the button on my shirt.’

We had always been concerned about this - this habit of putting mai in front to say and do everything. I would follow mai around so that she could not find herself alone with babu. If I left home I would keep worrying about what was happening there and what babu was doing to mai, and how mai would never tell.

Alas. That I could save mai. Our wish was so stubborn that we could not imagine that there was something unattainable about it. Or that some extraordinary steps might be needed to attain it.

‘Leave, mai,’ I kept saying, ‘Subodh is calling. At least you can go to visit. Babu too if he feels like it.’

 

Chapter 29

But since when does life follow anyone’s directions? It leaves familiar paths and turns to new ones all by itself. Babu went to Lucknow on work sometimes. He went once with some people and just as they entered our town on their way back a truck ploughed into their car. Babu and his three companions were thrown afar. It was dark and no one discovered them till morning. When they did, it was found that two had already passed away and babu still breathed but while his breathing was more or less normal, everything else in him was twisted and broken.

We rushed home and just on that day when we were not up to meeting anyone, bumped into some childhood friend of Subodh’s - Arif or Zamir or Jiwan, something like that. He had studied with him in Sunny Side Convent. He was a businessman in Bengal and met Subodh occasionally when he came home.

We were suffering. He was in a hilarious mood. Since we did not want to talk about ourselves and had on a mask of normality, we had to tolerate his banter.

‘Do you remember...,’ he was recounting memory after memory. ‘The carefreeness of those days when we came to the station for fun? Stood around on the platform drinking tea? And remember when so-and-so mail would come, we would dash inside in a crowd and grab the seats, thrilled that the up-down people thought there was no scat, peeping and moving on to other compartments? The whistle would blow and we’d jump off, guffawing that a whole compartment was going completely empty. Remember...?’

He went on and on. Subodh sat hiding behind am unnatural smile.

I was on my own because I did not know him much. I was safe and was beginning to wonder, were Subodh’s and my childhoods separate as well?

But we had come back together as ‘we’, aghast at life’s unpredictability. So aghast that we reached the edge of suspicion: -where in fact faith begins - can everything happen without a reason? Can life indeed be so fearful, chaotic, meaningless, random?

We had thought that the age-old rusted doorway had begun to creak open, and found that suddenly new, strong stakes had planted themselves all around mai. And she was imprisoned again.

Mai dropped everything and got busy picking out the glass pieces from babu’s tangled hair.

Babu’s body was broken. He was covered with plaster all over, but his head remained irretrievably bent to one side, his shoulder protruded on the other, and his waist was crooked forever. His feet would not fall straight. Babu dragged his broken body from one spot to another, made some noises with an unsteady tongue and did everything with mai’s hands - bathing, dressing, eating.

Mai was trapped - holding the forefinger of this ‘child’ of hers to make him walk.

A new cry of despair escaped from us. How very trapped she was! Worrying, we would drop our work, take time off, keep coming back home.

A shadow wandered around in the busy house. It had done so right from the beginning. Now there was a gloomy pall all over, all the time, of utter failure. As well as that shadow...

Babu also became a shadow.

It was in those days that ‘she’ came. She did not have mai’s handknitted sweater on but something clicked in us and we recognised her. Even though her body never juggled with loose fat under her clothes.

Mai kept sitting, close to babu on his bed, changing the bandage on his forehead. The strange woman sat nearby on a chair, the head of her umbrella sticking out of a coloured plastic bag.

I remember a few things clearly. She was coughing repeatedly as if she had an ordinary cold, and after each cough said, ‘excuse me.’ The cough arose in her throat and, even if it did not come out, the ‘excuse me’ came out. She was like girls educated in English medium schools who, as they grow up, cover their knees carefully with their frocks, join their legs, straighten their backs, make their hankies into balls in their hands on their laps, and at everything move slightly and say ‘Sorry’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Pardon’, ‘Excuse me.’

The wind was fierce and mai told me to close the window. I got up and went. The trees and plants outside were beating their limbs, as it were, in agony. I thought of my institute behind which the sea must be going mad.

When I saw the gulmohar leaves falling, I saw in my mind’s eye mai’s back, before it had become so bent, which I had seen shining with water drops and in the middle of which fell a long, shiny, shadowy split, like a branch.

I stopped, lost between these various thoughts. Babu was lying behind me broken, ‘that’ woman was sitting there and to close the window I was having to hold the curtain again and again. Which was getting work out and was flapping madly like the trees and plants and seas as if it thought it was also a part of nature.

That woman spoke, whether to mai or babu, I do not remember. I had a kind of premonition. I looked at mai and saw on her face a dawn-like peace and then a golden contentment.

Up on the roof Subodh was depressed. Mai had to suffer so much.

I cast my gaze full of confusion on him. He was unravelling the tangles of gender and society and tradition - mai who was bent over, mai who stooped, if it had been mai and not babu who had become bed-ridden would everything have changed the way it had in the house?

Now it became even more difficult to leave mai to herself. We became even more anxious in our desire to save her.

Subodh had to go back to England. He made me fill in this and that form and took it with him.

In the meantime I retuned to the house, bringing all my painting paraphernalia with me, with instructions to Vikram to keep coming there, on some work or the other, or even without any.

Babu’s eyes seemed to glint with a drop at the edges. ‘Aa...baa...’ he stammered unclearly to mai.

Mai came to my room - now she slept in babu’s room - and sat down without a word.

When I asked her what it was, she said that if possible, the two of us, Vikram and I, should not stay together here as we did.

She left. There was a cold weakness in my veins in the place of blood. I could not leave mai and go. And if I asked Vikram to stop coming...?

I realized with a shock that mai for the first time in my life had asked me for something, and then, too, not quite asked, just...

Judith had argued with us that she held us in her grip and if we did not fight loose, we could not grow. She was the one who had imprisoned to, not babu, not dada, not dadi. ‘You will not grow. You will not become anything. You will drown in this swamp of sticky intimate belonging.’

It was not as if mai told me to get married, or else leave him. How much did she understand?

When Vikram came the atmosphere was unbearable. I would wait for him to leave. I tried to avoid being alone with him because even then it seemed we were not alone.

On my canvases floated new images, in extremely closed rooms, watched by two silent eyes or a quiet shadow or a speechless fluttering sari end. The eyes open in the middle of a void. The shadow standing on one side of a wall. The sari end tied to the arms of a chair. As if these were peeping in from behind, responsible for making each scene a ‘private’ one and for it not being private either.

Vikram left. But that strange woman began to visit.

And mai spoke no more to babu in that feeble, dying, pitiful voice. Her tone had a force, her hands a business, every movement had a purpose, her eyes had confidence. If she saw babu do something wrong she raised her voice slightly and directed - ‘Oh, oh, what are you doing? Sit down ..no, do not bend over, sit down right there, immediately... someone else will pick it up...sit.’

Chapter 30

 

Mai was my guide - for what I must not be.

Mai was trapped. She remained trapped.

Babu's illness quietly swallowed up the little spot of contempt that had entered us and all we could feel was an infinite sadness well up inside. In spite of that woman. Or maybe because of her.

We had not learnt to ask questions. We just stood quietly on one side, casting a pitying look on mai.

We felt pity for babu too but the truth is babu was only an expansion of mai for us. If he existed at all. He was tied up with her.

And mai, in our sight, was tied up with us. In spite of everything that we had seen.

There is a trap formed by words, indeed one formed only by thoughts, in fact one formed merely by the tiniest doubt. The person thus entrapped sees everything only in a certain colour, even things of quite a different colour.

Our sight had been sharpening since childhood. The faint ticktock of some unfamiliar clock was audible but as if our ears were deceiving us. Some unseen flutter did reach us, but we considered it an illusion. If we saw some unfamiliar glimpse of mai we blinked our eyes in surprise and then re-drew our old familiar image.


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