top of page

November Child


Varsha Das

The old age home reeks decidedly of a damp washcloth and curtain mold.

The residents don't mind my presence. A few have peeked, every now

and then, and returned to their clucking needlework. They live in

personal dimensions running parallel to us and seem genuinely

surprised when we collide. I am led into a sparsely furnished room.

Plaster peels off the walls in irregular shreds. There is a wooden closet

in the room, and a wrought iron chair, swathed in fabric, the color of

sphagnum moss. A crucifix sits idly on the wall, and a clay Jesus hangs

from it. His clay palms and clay feet are hammered to the clay cross,

with clay nails. The clay Messiah bleeds, and I try to weep. A wheelchair

is pushed in, with a rag doll on it. A senile, comatose rag doll, who used

to be my mother. My mother has withered. She is a shriveled bean, in a

forgotten peapod. Her hands face upward, holding up the weight of

heavens in her lap. Her skull dollops sideways, and her chin tucks into a

safe crevice on her shoulder blade. Her eyes are sightless now, and her

irises ringed with the milky orbs of cataract – like the concentric circles

of age on a dismembered tree trunk. An elastic bead of drool slips past

her papery slack lips. A responsible nurse rushes forward and hurriedly

wipes away the indecent spittle, with the corner of her bleached pallu.

She carefully moves my mother's head, and delicately struggles to

position it upright on her neck. My mother sees right through me.

My mother, used to be a different person. Mother had been the

floating dust on vinyl records and pickled oil in Mason jars. She had

been the feverish glitter in the eye of a black, furry spider, when the

neighbor’s cello spun shrill webs across our one bedroom apartment.

She had been the creases on my grandmother’s sari and the lint on our

old Persian carpet. My mother had been the inherent devotion of a

castaway Kaffir.

On summer afternoons we didn’t speak of my father. Everyone knew

the story. In the shallow streets of our twinkling, poster clad colony, it

was celebrated folklore. Hoards of sweating masons and construction

employees would sip milked tea at the corner tea stall, and chatter

about how my father had been flogged, and hung upside down from

the branch of a loyal Gulmohar tree that he had planted at the

threshold of the village. They say, that my mother’s brothers had

guarded the tree, until my father’s last breath. They say that nearing his

inverted demise, all the blood had rushed to his head, making him look

extraordinarily flushed. Perhaps in his final moments, he had blushed

furiously, at the obscene atrocities he had committed. The conversation

about my father would come up as legitimate table talk during meals

and idle banter during card games. Some said, that he had been as dark

as a sesame seed. The squires of the colony’s evening carom tourneys

nodded their chins thoughtfully, when they talked of my father. Their

faces turned ghastly, under the slipping shadows of the yellow thirty

watt bulbs that hung precariously on hooked cable wires. They talked

of the tar-skinned man who courted his dusky, sloe-eyed mother, under

the flaming Gulmohar tree. Tales of my father’s mirthless courtship

floated up like blond coiffed woodshavings, from the blind carpenter’s

window to our streets. The shopkeepers gossiped over steel tiffin

boxes, of how my maternal grandfather had abandoned my dusky sloe-

eyes mother, when the pregnancy could not be hidden anymore.

Women at the tailor’s desk whisper of how my mother had birthed her

tar-skinned baby, without midwives, on a certain November midnight.

Teachers at school pointed their forefingers at me, and wrinkled their

noses in distaste. Boys said that the November child’s mother was a

shameless madwoman. She wore her blouse too loose and plaited her

sari too low. She powdered her nose and hummed obnoxious songs.

She gazed at mating pigeons and danced in the balcony. She lived. They

talked. Ours was a colony of gossipmongers. Mother never confirmed,

nor denied the rumors.

My mother started to disappear, in her mid thirties. She was here, but

she wasn’t she would forget to stew the rice when it boiled, and looked

puzzled when I’d request her to bray a lullaby. She’d start dusting our

tin trunk and scrubbing the floors in the middle of the night. Sometimes

she brazenly threw away my textbooks. She would build an infantry of

paper planes, and snore till midday. In time, I stopped trying to show

her the budding half moon on my thumbnail and urge her to make me

lunch for school picnics. As the years passed, my mother slowly forgot

to be a mother. She’d sit glassy eyed by the window sill and watch the

pigeons in childlike fascination. She’d forget to bathe, to eat, to move. I

started working petty jobs, to save money for college. I spent as little

time at home, as humanly possible. When the time came, I unclasped

the thin golden chain around mother’s neck and sold it for fair money.

She probably did not notice. Even if she did, she was too far gone to

protest. I rented a cheap room near the college campus, and moved

out. Life moved on for me. I never returned to our gossipmonger’s

colony. Later, an old acquaintance telephoned me, enquiring if I was

willing to move mother to a government faculty for veterans, in the

neighboring city. Free lodging, food and healthcare. I agreed. A week

later, he faxed me the details of the faculty. I tucked the slip of paper

into a shirt pocket and lost it within days.

This is the first time I have come here. The white swathed nurse fills me

in on my mother’s health. A few months after she had moved in, she’d

had a sudden frenzy, and in her fit, she’d hit her head on the iron railing

of the staircase. She had been diagnosed with concussion, and never

really recovered. The nurse speaks in carefully blanketed relief. She

says that mother had been fairly unresponsive even prior to the

incident. She would sit by the window, and fold paper planes out of

newspapers. A peon nearby snickers, and whispers that the mute lady

ought to be sent to an asylum. I don’t respond. I don’t ask the nurse,

the question burning my scalp-if she’d ever asked about her son. The

sheaf of legal hobnob in my pocket grows heavy. The nurse leaves the

room, allowing us a moment of privacy. Now, it is only my mother and

me in the sparsely furnished room. Like old times. I stare at her

emaciated frame for a while, trying to picture the sloe-eyed woman of

my father’s rumored heart, and the iron backed bird of my early

childhood. I cannot. All I can picture is the wasted madwoman whom I

had abandoned. But then again, was it not her who had abandoned me

first? The answer moves in circles. As I stare at her, a knot of corrosive

anger unfurls in me. It reaches up, like a scathing shroud, from the tips

of my toes to the ends of my hair, until I am flushed and quivering in

irrefutable rage. This vehement, unbridled anger in me is directed

towards the limp rag doll on the wheelchair, who doesn’t bat an

eyelash at my presence. It pains me to realize that I have no mother. I

bring out the property papers and crouch before the wheelchair. The

one bedroom apartment of my boyhood, sitting currently unused in a

nook of the gossipmonger’s colony, will soon have an unmindful tenant.

I dip my mother’s bony finger into an inkpot, and press a callous blue

fingerprint upon the line of consent. The one bedroom apartment will

turn in fair money. I hold her paralyzed wrist in my hands for a while,

feeling the warmth osmose from her wrinkled epidermis to my worn

one. I rub the ink from her finger, and stain my palm. After a while, I

drop her hand, and prepare to leave. I am near the doorway, when I

spare her a parting glance. Perhaps, I see her blink.

Author, Poet, Writer, American, Indian Australian writers
Varsha Das
Share on:
You might also like:

November Child

Interview with Avni Doshi

Editor's Note


Woodchucks without Sense

Moonbone & Maybees

bottom of page