Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Rumjhum Biswas
When we were poor, we had mother’s garden.
The garden spread for more than a mile around the house and stretched a tendril or two inside as well. She grew all kinds of colours, textures and flavors in it, just to feed our hungry mouths.
But the dahlias, she grew for herself.
Mother’s kitchen depended on the garden. She had many mouths to feed. Nobody knew what she herself ate. And, she was as pale as the chrysanthemums she grew during our tropical December.
Mother coaxed the greens out, every season. Different shades of green with different scents, cooked with different kinds of spices sizzling in the pots. Her favorite season was winter, when the brown loamy soil yielded up a bounty that was fit for a wedding banquet. Small crisp lady’s fingers and tight red tomatoes. Round emerald parcels of cabbages. Snow ball cauliflowers. Green peas that we stole from the stalks, so sweet they were, like soft boiled toffees. Brown baby potatoes. Candy orange carrots. Dark ruby beetroots and radishes like elephants’ tusks.
Itinerant parrots fought beak to beak with us for a morsel. They rampaged among the guava trees in a flurry of vengeance, until mother came out and flung grain and chili peppers at them as a peace offering. She took the fallen yellow guavas with her, in the safety of a purple macramé bag. Jars of purple guava jelly stood in rows at the end of the week. The rich scent of guava cheese hung like honey comb above us all day. For years, I believed that her jellies were purple because of that purple macramé bag.
The front edges of her garden grew chili peppers of all shapes and colours. The hottest were the smallest, Surya-Mukhi chilies. Even the parrots were wary of those. But not father. He would bend his head over the enormous brass thali with its mound of white rice and a circle of brass bowls full of my mother’s offerings, snapping chilies with his teeth; attended to by mother, a translucent presence amidst the fragrance of food. Father neither looked up at anyone nor uttered a word after he had offered his sprinkling of water to the ancestors before the meal. He ate with a single focus, and did not leave even a small drop of juice in the fish heads after he was done with them. After father and grandfather had eaten, came our turn to eat. The unmarried uncles and aunts sat with us and made as much chatter as we did, without paying any attention to the food. But none of us left anything on our plates. This was a training we had received from our grandfather, and we finished every single grain that on our thalis. I don’t remember what mother ate. I saw her a few times in the kitchen, but she always ate with her back to the door.
Those days we cared little about anyone else, as long as our own bellies were full. So sometimes we, the children of that house, would run off to the outer edges of Mother’s garden where banana, Indian Plum, Tamarind and Jamun trees grew, alongside a solitary Jackfruit tree. These bore fruit in abundance according to the season, despite being ignored by Mother. I think the trees didn’t mind for she had nurtured them as a young bride when the garden was an ambling wild thing, hostile and mysterious. This had been the most generous part of the garden then. The trees which were used to their privacy, did not like their earth to be opened up and plied with cow dung. They preferred to quench their thirst with rain, a moody thing to rely on. Mother let them do as they pleased. They returned the favor with an abundance of fruit. And, by the time we were born, it was a known fact that should famine ever try to visit our land, the back garden would block it mightily. So we ran freely to these trees and climbed them and plundered them to our fill. Mother’s store room was full of pickles that she and her kitchen help mates made from the Indian plums and tamarind pods. The prayer room was so overwhelmed with the scent of ripe jackfruits and bananas that it drew the fruit bats in like a drug from the wilder unknown parts of her garden.
Mother prayed in her prayer room every morning and evening. Those two hours were hers. Even father couldn’t claim them; not even after deliberately toppling her brass Lakshmi Kalash full of holy water, striped with vermillion and crowned with mango leaves. Mother never discussed it with anybody. The aunts maliciously tried to get her to open up, but she always met their provocations with silence.
Grandfather would look at her from beneath his spectacles and quiet the murmuring servant at his bedside with a sharp knuckle rap on the wooden table where he wrote. Sometimes he would eat before father as a silent protest, against the blue stains that showed through mother’s thin cotton sari. The few servants that we had left, belonged to the old families of hereditary serfs, who now served us out of loyalty, for our family could no longer afford their true upkeep. But even their loyalty couldn’t keep them from frowning disapprovingly when father wasn’t looking. They loved mother like the monkeys of Ramayana that loved Sita.
Nothing affected mother’s prayers. She prayed for the sheer pleasure of it. And when she emerged from the prayer room, in the morning and once again in the evening, her face glowed like liquid vermillion on fire. Her eyes had a singular dreamy look that I have never seen in the faces of priests and god-men. Ever.
Mother had a few flowering shrubs and trees exclusively for her puja-room. These too were seasonal, like the beli or jasmine in summer and the saffron–stalked Shiuli in autumn. And, they stood there, in their own spaces, silent for most of the year until their season came to speak, and then they spoke with such an outpouring of blossoms that their scent stupefied the rest of the garden.
Father took the jasmines she found unworthy for her Gods to bed with him. He said their scent lessened the summer heat. As the summer progressed, the jasmine grew strong in his room, until whether there were blossoms soaking in a saucer of water or not in his room, it reeked of jasmine and also of something else. Mother dusted the bed clean of torn and crushed petals. The maid swept them out with the dust and mopped the room every morning. But the scent remained.
We loved mother’s Shiuli flowers the best. These flowers produced a pure yet heady perfume early in the mornings and then again at dusk. We spread table cloths under the branches at dusk. When we woke up at dawn the next day, our eyes opened to a fragrant white and saffron carpet beneath the Shiuli tree. We never touched the flowers because we had not taken our baths yet. They were for mother alone; the tree’s gift to her and ours as well. She accepted the flowers with a smile that caressed our upturned faces.
Autumn was the season for her favorite flowers and her favorite Goddess, Lakshmi. Lakshmi Puja took place two weeks after the more grand and showy Durga Puja. Lakshmi was the deity of all good wives. Married women looked up to her to improve their lot. We looked forward to Lakshmi Puja too, but our reasons were of a gastronomical nature. We loved the Prasad of fruit and sandesh. The bhog that was served at dinner was a sumptuous feast of a mixed vegetable curry, golden fried luchis and sweet thick and creamy payesh. The house shimmered like a wedding marquee. The women, both young and old, glowed with such charm that grandfather once remarked that we had all turned into Lakshmi Goddesses for the day. That glow would remain on mother’s face long after it had faded from everybody else’s. Finally it would fade from her face too. We knew then, that autumn had ended and winter was near.
Winter brought with it chilly months. A dry cold wind cried at odd times around the garden and in sudden corners of the house. The bhanrar ghar or storeroom became plump with vegetables and fruits from the garden. Yet, a queer intensity gripped everyone, as if there was bad magic in the air. Of course we, the children exploited this mood and extracted many ghost stories from grandfather, the aunts and uncles and even the servants. Our lives were innocent. Until, that winter – the winter from which this story arrived – we did not know the face of evil.
That winter was milder than the ones preceding it. We relaxed. But mother fretted over her garden. That year, the yield was less juicy, less colorful and less fragrant. The old gardener sniffed the air and shook his head. We often saw him discussing the garden with mother. Even father worried about the garden, because, according to the weather, the fruits of their labor ought to have been sweet. But a sheet of despair floated over the vegetable patches and flower beds like an evil mist. The plants turned sicklier by the day. Finally grandfather said that it was high time somebody sent for Tarokeswar Baba, our family’s tantric priest and custodian of the temple dedicated to our ancestral guardian Goddess.
Tarokeswar Baba arrived with a small entourage of helpers and novice priests. They chose to stay in the outhouse, though mother had cleaned and aired the guest room especially for the Baba. He looked at mother kindly when he declined her hospitality, saying that he preferred to stay out of bounds of the grihasthis or householders. Then he started his pujas, creating fog and phantasmagoria.
Our home grew stranger than that strange winter. The wind retreated to the far corners where the fruit trees grew, to howl its discontent. The roosters were silent at dawn. The dogs didn’t bark at strangers. The cats chased shadowy mice, returning gaunt and hungry-eyed. Godavari, our cow produced milk in hysterical abundance. But her milk was not sweet like before, and the milk confectionary that came from mother’s kitchen fell flat in our mouths. We became listless. Mother looked paler than her chrysanthemums. The aunts gossiped less. The uncles loitered less. The scritch-scritch of grandfather’s quill stopped for long intervals. The Baba’s prayers went on, his fervor rising to a pitch in the black nights and ebbing to a low drone during the day.
Father was the only one who seemed to thrive in this atmosphere. He often went to the Baba’s rooms, emerging hours later with a long vermillion mark on his forehead, his eyes shining with power and knowledge. He seemed softer towards us. But we resisted, for he smelled like a stranger to us. Even Sheba, our guard dog, and father’s loyal servant appeared uncomfortable. She skulked among the hedges when father called.
In the second week after the Baba’s arrival, we fell sick one by one. I was the first to be down with a violent fever and rashes. “Chicken pox,” Dr. Shome our family physician decreed. So I was promptly quarantined to the very guest room the Baba had declined. I felt my sickness was far more sinister than homely chicken pox, because my nightmares were intense. I often called out to mother. She tended to me grim faced, more concerned that I would contaminate the rest of the household than for my pains. I felt unloved and neglected and a little seedling of hatred grew inside me.
Mother’s fear turned out to be true. The guest room became an infirmary. After that it actually turned merry with us, including some of the aunts and uncles, confined to the same room. Lighthearted banter and games of ludo or a simple pack of cards, eased the irritation of chicken pox. Neem leaves swayed in thick bunches everywhere. Even our sponge-bath water had Neem leaves floating in it. Soon our noses could detect no smell other than the sickly sweet of Neem.
My brother was the last to fall sick. By the time he caught it, we were on our way to recovery. The family that had grown so used to this in-house epidemic now turned hysterical because brother was sick. He was the scion, the heir apparent (though there wasn’t much left to inherit). Naturally grandfather, father, mother and all the servants were in a tizzy. Brother was given special diet and hot sponges four times a day. Father personally sat with him every time he cried out or complained. Dr. Shome was constantly called. He protested that there was little that he could do.
Brother’s chicken pox didn’t last long. It abated quickly under the weight of their solicitations. But then, just when he was about to run out to play, brother fell sick again. Dr. Shome said that since he was internally not very strong, he had caught a virus in his weakened state. We were immediately forgotten. The elders were convinced that a malevolent spirit had got in. A pall of gloom fell over the house over and above the Baba’s fog. Father and grandfather urged the Baba to intensify his pujas. Mother spent longer hours in her Puja room but emerged looking wan.
The Baba pronounced that there was a malevolent spirit amongst us, my brother’s siblings; a spirit so envious that the sheer strength of its hate had produced this sickness. He wanted to hound out this thing that threatened the life of the family’s most precious member.
We were made to take purifying baths and stand before the Baba at dawn. Shivering, and frightened, we stood single file, awaiting the Baba’s decree. He stood in front of each of us placing a warm bony hand on each of our foreheads. He breathed a mantra and waited. Then he moved on to the next in line. When it was my turn, he gave me scant attention, quickly muttered his chant and moved away. Later I heard that he had selected me as the guilty one. I would have to do penance for my malevolence on a day and time fixed by him. Part of my penance would be spent in a dark night in the fruit garden, underneath a particular tree.
That was the first time I saw mother standing up for me.
“She must not go,” said mother. “She cannot; it is not the right time of the month for her. The puja will be in vain, worse we may anger the Devi.”
The Baba looked at her for a long time. “Then you must give up your son to the spirits.”
“There must be a way; another way,” she said, going right up to the Baba and looking at him directly in the eye. Father was shocked. He had never seen mother act so forward before. Grandfather frowned. The Baba looked at her earnest face, and then he looked at grandfather and father. And, he looked at me too, before turning towards mother again.
“There is another way. It is the harder way. You need a strong heart to do it.”
Mother simply said, “I will, if it will save my children.” The Baba nodded quietly. Grandfather looked at mother, tears glistening behind his spectacles. I noticed she had said children and not just son, and my heart grew warm again.
They took mother to the banana grove a little after midnight on the chosen day. I followed unseen. There they laid her down on a wooden platform, her white breast bared to a moonless sky. I saw and heard the drone of rituals that seemed endless to my un-sleeping state. Finally, when the stars were aligned just right, a stream of inky blood snaked its way out from mother’s heart into the starlight. The Baba collected the blood in a copper tureen and started his Puja. Mother sat as if in a trance, throughout the whole thing. The Baba’s entourage danced in the shadows like ghouls.
The next few days after that mother did not speak to anyone. She lay pale and sick. Father went to her carrying food, water, fruit juices. A maid was brought in to massage mother’s feet, comb her long black hair. I had never seen father care for mother so much before, nor afterwards.
Brother got better. Dr. Shome smiled at everybody triumphantly, as if he had not merely administered penicillin but had also discovered the drug himself. Grandfather wrote away a piece of land from his already much diminished heritage, in gratitude to the Baba. Father bought a gold necklace for mother. She showed it to me later, saying that she would keep it safe for my wedding. Then she locked it away in her steel cupboard.
Everything became normal again after that. Godavari went back to her eight seers of milk everyday. We smelled the sweet fragrance as it boiled in the kitchen. The cats and dogs went back to their old ways. We tore around the garden stealing lady’s fingers and peas whenever the gardener was absent minded. The crop was not as bountiful as the previous years, but it was a lot different from the barrenness of that winter’s early days. Our erstwhile healthy appetites returned. We were an ordinary family once more. Except for mother and that part of the garden. These two things were the only anomalies left in our lives.
Mother was outwardly whole, but she carried a livid scar inside her heart that showed faintly in the valley of her breast. As for the back garden, it seemed to have become haunted by the very spirit of fecundity where the fruit trees grew, for it began to bear fruits so profusely that soon no servant bothered to guard it from rampaging school boys. The fruits were not only lushly abundant, they were also extraordinarily delicious. So delicious, that it seemed as if the whole soil in that part had become surcharged with secret potions of sucrose. The sweetness constantly streamed up through the roots of each and every tree, to the trunks to the boughs and finally to each fruit dangling on its stem, where a tiny drop of scarlet, barely visible to the naked eye joined it to the edible part.