How do you break free from fear within the family?
“Hello, Didi?” I run into our bedroom and grab the phone that sits on the table between our beds. Didi went off to university a while ago, but her bed still has her patchwork kantha, just like mine. Ma had got the two blankets stitched for us from her old saris the year before she became a star. Our beds still smell of Ma.
“How did you know it was me?” I can hear my sister smile. She sounds so much like Ma, except when she sings. “I’m just around the corner! Are you all packed? I should be there in one… two… no, exactly three minutes!”
“Ek, dui, teen! One, two, three! Bhooter Raja dilo bor!” I sing from Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Quite out of tune, as always. I’m the one who inherited Ma’s tone-deafness while Didi had got Baba’s deep Tagore-Song voice. “Oof, that’s ENOUGH!” laughs Didi. I can totally imagine her covering her ear with her free hand. Then, as if to say sorry, Didi hums a line too. “Jobor-jobor teen bor, ek dui teen!” Totally in tune, as always. She hangs up.
My favourite Satyajit Ray song seems pretty perfect right now, as I start packing my Dora case. It does feel like I’ve got three blessings – though not from the King of Ghosts, as in the song. Well, at least two amazing, jobor-jobor blessings. Number One – Didi is coming home for dinner after a very long time. Number Two – we are going on a holiday together! Not terribly far – I’m going to spend a week in the sunny seaside apartment that Didi and her best-friend Rahnuma share. It’s in a place called Seven Bungalows. They live in a very tall building, not a bungalow at all, but it has a lovely garden with orange swings overlooking the greyish sea.
Didi has been trying to take me away for a stay-over all year, and Baba has finally said yes. Didi’s neighbourhood is not at all like the part of Navy Nagar where we grew up. Her road is lined with colourful cafes, ice-cream parlours, flower shops, pet-grooming salons, and restaurants that stay open late and play all kinds of music. They even have karaoke nights! I’m very excited to spend a week there with Didi and Rahnuma.
I really like Rahu, though the first time I saw her I thought she was a little scary. I met her on Didi’s 21st birthday. We had all gone to the white building where my grandmother lives with other nice old ladies. The first thing I noticed about Rahnuma was the Kaali on her forearm, with a necklace of dead men’s heads and a spikey blood-red tongue. Along with the fierce tattoo, Rahnuma had reddish hair broken into thick ropes of jata. But unlike Goddess Kaali, Rahnuma is not fierce at all. She has the biggest smile, and always smells of sandalwood. When our grandmother had offered to use a bottle of coconut oil and a bucket of reetha bubbles to rescue Rahnuma’s matted hair, Didi had got quite upset. “They are dreadlocks, Dimma, not jata, and her hair is perfectly clean!” she had cried, while Rahu simply smiled her calm, soft smile, without a word.
I’m happy that Baba had, after a whole year, agreed to let me stay over with Didi and Rahu, though the reason he did so is such an unhappy one. It was only when I got so very, very sad two weeks ago and wouldn’t get out of my bed, that Baba thought a change of place might be good for me. I was sad because my friends Akshansh and Abhay had got into a terrible accident while they were bicycling over to my place. They were run over by an army officer’s wife while he was showing her how to drive their new car. Of course I knew that the brothers were still my friends even though they too had become stars. I knew they were smiling at me from the sky along with Ma, but still, I missed them a lot. I couldn’t stop crying for days. So Baba finally called Didi.
“Nikki!” Didi walks in briskly, her boy-cut hair (as Dimma calls it) glossy as always. “Aren’t you too old for Dora? I must remember to get you a new case. Hey, have you packed your favourite books?”
“But I’m only going for a week!”
“Yes, but what if you decide to stay longer?” Didi smiles. “And better pack Ma’s kanthas too. Bombay can get quite cold in January.”
I add Heidi and Abol Tabol to the pile, and the beautiful Harry Potter set that Abhay and Akshansh had given me on my birthday.
“Oh, do make sure you take your games too… Now, let me check about dinner.” Didi pops out of the room as quickly as she’d popped in.
Didi is right. I might as well take my Trivial Pursuits, UNO and Snakes and Ladders to her place. These were Ma’s favourite games with me, but Baba never plays them anyway. In fact, he hardly watches any films or shows with me either. Sometimes we do watch “I Love Lucy” because Ma loved that show, but he never laughs out loud even when Lucy is tummy-splittingly hilarious. Come to think of it, Baba pretty much stopped smiling too, after Ma became a star. It’s not like he is super grumpy, but he’s just not the smiley kind. Ma used to tease him that he lost his sense of humour in Car-Gill.
I don’t know what kind of a car that was, and why it made Baba all serious, but I suppose he did lose his sense of humour somewhere. I remember the time Didi dressed up in his three-piece suit for fun, and I wore my best party dress, the fluffy one I’d inherited from Didi – which she had not even worn once, by the way. It was a little too big for me still, but I loved it because it was blue, Ma’s favourite colour. And it had lots of sparkly bits on it. Giggling together, Didi and I started waltzing around our room. That’s when Baba walked in. He was furious. “You’re not a boy, Sharmila!” he yelled, and poor Didi got a terrible thrashing that night.
But Baba doesn’t hit Didi any more. The last time it was really bad was when she refused to take the NDA exam. Funnily enough, though he didn’t like Didi’s short hair and boy’s clothes, Baba really wanted her to join the Indian Army. Maybe this had something to do with Ma? I remember the time Ma and Baba were having one of their extra-loud arguments, the kind that made my tummy feel all weird. It was just after Ma came back from hospital the first time. I heard Ma cry out, “For god’s sake, Dilip, girls can be soldiers too – you don’t need to have a son for that!” But a year after that, when everything had changed, Didi told Baba she’d never want to “make a living from war.” She’d rather have a degree in journalism, she said, than a Maha Vir Chakra like Baba. Baba was so mad at Didi that night that I got very scared, and wished Ma had been there and not become a star.
I’m sure Baba felt very upset about it too. When Didi came back from the hospital with stitches on her lip, Baba simply said, because he is a patriot, “When you become a journalist make sure you don’t write anything against the government.” Didi had laughed strangely – an odd one-sided laugh because of her swollen lip – and had banged the door to our room shut. It was all very loud and angry and it made me feel very queasy. When Didi turned around and saw that I was ready to burst into tears, her face cleared and she hugged me tight. She put on my best song – “If you believe in fairies, then clap your hands! Clap-clap-clap!” Then she picked up Ragini, my rag doll, and started clapping Ragini’s cloth hands together until I smiled.
Didi always knows how to make me feel better. In fact, she’s been my most fun playmate for as long as I can remember, though she is ten years older. When Ma was showing me how to make Ragini out of Dimma’s torn white sari, Didi had joined in, sticking one of Ma’s big red bindis on the doll’s tiny forehead. It had suddenly made the doll seem like a person.
When I turn to pack Ragini into Dora, I badly stub my toe against the foot of the bed. Ouch! Why am I so clumsy? I mean, Ma was such a graceful dancer, after all, with lots of prizes that I keep lined up on our shelf. But then, I guess Ma could be a little klutzy too, just like me. I remember she would keep getting hurt from falling over and banging into walls and things. And it never happened when we were with her, so Didi and I couldn’t even help. She’d have new bruises and cuts in the morning and when I touched them, worried, she’d smile and say, “It’s okay, Baby, I fell again, that’s all.”
Dimma tells me that Ma stopped dancing when she married Baba. But I have a whole album full of pictures of her dancing, looking like a goddess in her Odissi costume. I remember how Ma would pick me up in her arms and dance around our house, singing off-key as always, red bindi flashing on her forehead. Her laughter would spill like sunshine into every corner of our big blue house. She burst into the living room one day with all that dazzle, while I was watching Tangled on TV.
“I’ve just been to the hospital,” Ma sang, “and I have the best news in the whole world! You girls are going to have a little sister!”
“Nandini! We promised the doctor you’ll be quiet about this.” Baba walked in behind her, not looking nearly as happy as Ma. “And there’s no need to discuss this with the children until we’ve talked.”
I don’t know what they talked about that night. The next morning, Baba drove Ma to the hospital again. She was gone just a couple of hours, but in the next few weeks, Ma was never the same again. No more ripples of laughter. No more bouncing around the house. No more singing out of tune. Instead, we’d hear Baba and Ma shout at each other late into the night. Didi and I would hold hands tightly as my tummy got all knotted up. We tried to vanish under our kanthas, our stretched-out arms making a bridge between our twin beds.
As I zip up my Dora case, a gust of wind slams the window shut. I get up to close it properly. The night sky glitters with billions of stars. Which one is Ma?
Everything changed three years ago, when I was eight. It was December 31st. A busy day for me as I was going to the Winter Picnic, then had art class. Then Dimma would pick me up for the night while Ma and Baba went to the Army Ball, and Didi would go out with her friends. As I rushed out to catch the picnic bus that morning, I heard Baba-Ma fighting again. I think Ma was saying that she was feeling too tired to go the Ball. Later that day, when I stepped out of art class, I saw Didi running to me, tears streaming down her face. She grabbed my hand and dragged me back home, running full speed. There was a crowd outside our house, an ambulance waiting. Strangers were carrying a body out on a stretcher. A body wrapped in a white sheet from head to toe, with a big round patch of red right in the middle of the covered head. As if our rag doll had secretly grown into a giant, and Ma’s bindi had somehow melted and spread all over it.
Baba was standing outside the door, looking stunned. Before I understood anything, Dimma wrapped me up in her arms, her body shaking with sobs. “Your mother has become a star now, Nikki,” she had said in a choked voice.
“Dinner is ready!” Didi calls out from the dining room.
Baba is watching the news on TV, as he always does during dinner.
“Gun violence is disturbingly on the rise across the globe. In the first 24 hours of the new year, 210 separate incidents of gun violence happened across the United States. At least 64 people were killed…”
I wish he’d switch it off. I don’t mind hearing the headlines every night while we eat, but it would be nice for us to just talk sometimes. The three of us hardly ever eat together these days.
“The victims included a one-year-old, several teenagers, and a mother and daughter. A troubling statistic to add to the 39 killed in Istanbul on New Year’s eve…”
Baba mutes the TV – thank god – and starts to eat, as Didi ladles daal on to my rice. “It’s a shame that they let anybody have a gun in America,” he says. “Only responsible parties like the police or the military should be allowed to bear arms, like it is here in India.”
Didi stops midway and stares at Baba, as daal drips in big yellow drops all over our starched white table cloth.
“But India has the second highest number of murders in the world every year, Baba” she says as she fills Baba’s bowl. “We never speak about everyday violence here, that’s all. And the youth are most at risk.”
“Young people get into fights everywhere in the world, but at least we are safe from gun violence, Sharmila. Our gun laws are tight, and the report of the National Crime Records Bureau shows that -”
“Actually, that report shows that close to 3700 people were murdered with guns in India in just one year,” Didi cuts him off. “And more than 85% were killed by unlicensed arms. How are we safe?”
“Don’t you talk back at me, Sharmila!” snaps Baba, pushing his chair back and getting up angrily.
Oh no, please no… It’s getting all loud and horrible again… Like it used to be between Ma and Baba.
“Calm down, Baba,” says Didi. “I’m doing an assignment on that report, and we are just having a conversation, aren’t we? There’s no reason to get angry.”
“Why do you always have to disagree with everything I say?” Baba keeps shouting at Didi.
I get that panicky feeling in my tummy again as my heart beats super fast. I have to make it all go quiet somehow. I have to say something.
“Please don’t be angry, Baba,” I blurt out. “I’m sure Ma would say the same, if she was here!”
“But she isn’t here, Nikasha, is she?” Baba hisses. “You know that your Ma is a star now, so why don’t you just let her be!”
“She isn’t a star, Baba,” says Didi. “She is dead. From a gun shot.”
“She died in an accident!” Baba cries out.
“She died from a bullet,” Didi says quietly.
It happened while Ma was cleaning Baba’s gun. I’d never seen Ma clean a gun before so I’m sure she wasn’t very good at it, and I wish she had never tried. When the gun went off, Baba had rushed in and taken it from her but it was too late. The neighbours had found him like that, gun in hand, frozen in shock. The police had been very understanding, of course. Baba was a hero, after all, a Maha Vir Chakra.
“A bullet from a gun that should have never been here,” I hear Didi say. “A gun you brought into the home of two children, and a woman suffering from… ”
What is Didi saying? Ma didn’t mean to shoot herself, did she? Of course it was an accident… wasn’t it? As my thoughts get all tangled up around each other, I hear Didi’s voice from what seems like very far away.
“Will you ever tell us what really happened that day, Baba?”
Baba’s face looks like the darkest storm as he swoops down and yanks Didi off her chair.
“Stop it, Baba,” Didi catches his hands and holds them in mid air, her grip so tight that her knuckles seem to be bursting through her skin.
They stare at each other, hands shaking and eyes full of rage, for what seems like the scariest forever. I can feel that I’m about to throw up.
Then a car honks outside. Rahu’s code, three short hoots.
Didi lets go of Baba’s hands. He sits back down, suddenly looking very old. Without another word, Didi picks up my case and takes my hand.
Rahnuma is waiting outside. “Is that all?” Rahu asks as she puts Dora into the boot. “Do you have everything you need, Nikki?”
“Yes,” I say slowly, climbing into the back seat. I’m glad I packed Ma’s kanthas. “I have everything.”
Didi puts my seatbelt on, and turns back to look at our house. I can see her eyes get shiny with tears.
I haven’t seen Didi cry in years. In fact, I haven’t seen her cry since Ma had become a… a… Since Ma had become dead.
Didi gets in the front. Rahnuma holds Didi’s hand for a moment, then starts the car.
“Happy New Year, Nikki,” says Rahu. I can feel her sandalwood smell all around me, warm and sweet, like a hug.
“Happy New Year, Ma,” I say softly to myself, as I watch our big blue house vanish around the corner.
Copyright © 2017 by Nandana Dev Sen
A writer, actor, and child-rights activist, Nandana has authored three children’s books, Not Yet! (2017), Mambi and the Forest Fire (2016) and Kangaroo Kisses (2016), and has two more forthcoming in 2017. Not Yet! was launched in January 2017 in eight bilingual editions all across India (which she also translated in Bengali). Nandana edited and co-authored Make Up Your Mind, a bilingual book of her translations of her mother Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s Bengali poetry. After studying literature at Harvard and filmmaking at USC, she worked as a book editor, a screenwriter, a translator, a script doctor, an advocate for child protection, and as Princess Jasmine in Disneyland. Nandana has starred in over 20 feature films from four continents (and multiple languages), and works with children and grownups at RAHI, Operation Smile and UNICEF to fight against child abuse.