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November Child


Varsha Das

The old age home reeks decidedly of 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.  

Varsha Das began writing poems in the March of 2020 in a collaborative project that spanned over 100 poems over the period of 2 years, writing about her time with her people and city. The project was made into a little publication by the name Trapezists: Every poem we wrote. She is based in Siliguri and writes in Delhi now.

Varsha Das
Varsha Das
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