Memoir Musings: The Blanket

“Can we get rid of this?” Pete asks, holding up a faded pink, patched cotton blanket.  The stitching around the edges is unraveling, the label is faded, almost illegible from decades of use.  I look up from the box I am packing with linens and sit back on my heels.  I reach for it wordlessly, almost snatching it out of his grasp.  “What is it?” he’s puzzled, it’s just an old blanket after all.  Shaking my head, I ball it up in my hands, then smooth it out, feeling the incredibly soft fabric after all those years, the memories rushing back like freight trains, relentless, and I am helpless in their path.

I shake my head again, fold the blanket into a neat square and place it gently with the linens in the box.  The next few hours fly by as we box up our life in the San Carlos house, getting it ready for the new owners.  Our last night here, I think, looking around the living room that evening.  “Go to bed,” he says, “I’ve got a few more things I want to do before I call it a night.”  I nod and walk into the bedroom, gingerly picking my way past the debris on the floor.  As I sit on the large, comfortable bed we share with our two greyhounds and three cats, I reach over to the box closest to me and unerringly pull out the pink blanket.  Holding it close to my face, I draw a deep breath, imagining a faint odor of Old Spice and Brylcream.  Leaning back against the soft pillows, I unfold the blanket and watch it billow slightly as I pull it up and over my face.  The overhead light is now diffused, a pink fuzzy glow that grows and grows until it envelops me in its soothing warmth.  As I lay there, my mind picking through the memories, the light lightens, brightens, changes from the warm pink to a stark yellow, harsh, insistent, painful.

The bed is hard and unyielding under me.  I lie there, motionless; eyes open under the blanket, watching the black spots of floaters chase their way across my eyes.  The overhead light seems hot on my face, through the blanket.  I can hear the low murmur of voices in the distance, the occasional ring of the doorbell, visitors being ushered in, the clink of teacups, the long silences, the solitary sob.

I haven’t slept since my nap yesterday morning.  We had come home from the hospital, exhausted, but happy.  Thatha had shown a few signs of improvement: his face was showing more color, his lips moved, and I had felt his hand twitch under mine.  Feeling hopeful, we took the chance to go home and bathe, change clothes, take a nap, and bring Paati back to the hospital.

When we returned, he was gone.

“Those are the typical signs of imminent death,” the doctor said.  “They always look healthy right before they die.  Color comes back into the cheeks, the breath smells sweet…” he shrugged, looked at us, nodded and then left us there, shell-shocked.  I sat, tears pouring down my face, hugging myself.  My mother and Paati sat motionless, disbelieving.

I don’t remember the ride home.

His body was brought home that evening.  One of his sisters and other female relatives came around the same time, silent, efficient, helping to clear the space where he would lie for the night.  They chose the open space where the dining and temple rooms opened onto, at the base of the stairs, the center of the house.  All traditional Indian homes have a center, marked by a tile, different in shade to the surrounding flooring.  Thatha had designed the house, and he had picked that spot as the center.  A puja had been done by the Hindu priests to consecrate it, and finally, before the tile was set, a handful of precious jewels were placed there by my Thatha and Paati, the priests reciting the Sanskrit verses to bless the house and spread a veil of peace and safety over it.  Over the years, the tile, specked with mica and other stones, had faded to a dull grey blue.  I had whiled away long afternoons, wondering about the jewels hidden there.

The men from the hospital placed him on the floor, centering him over the tile.  He lay there, looking as though he were just asleep.  Paati sat down near his head, a relative on either side, ready to help her if needed.  She sat there, looking at him, dry-eyed, focused.  “He’s still breathing!” she gasped.  Everyone looked at him, then at her, and one of the men said, sadly, “He’s gone, Amma.”

As the men walked away, she sat there, motionless, in disbelief.  Then a harsh loud sob burst from her, followed by a keening, the like of which I’ve never heard before or since.  It drove right into me, punching me breathless, and I fell to my knees.  The women left her alone until she was spent, quiet, hoarse, hunched over by her husband’s head.  Then they went to her, lifted her up to take her to her room, but she pushed them aside, insisting on staying where she was.

They then proceeded to undress him where he lay, oil and bathe him, and then cover his body with the traditional white sheets in which he would be cremated.  I sat at his feet, unnoticed, undisturbed.  When they were done, it was close to midnight.  I looked around and realized that we were all women.  All the men were gone, I knew not where.

One by one, the ladies fell asleep, until the only ones awake were me, my mother, and Paati.  I looked at her, but her eyes were distant, lost.  I slowly reached out to touch his feet, and then started massaging them, one last time, gently pushing on the strong bones, the prominent veins, the soft leathery skin.  I didn’t think she noticed, but then as I was finishing, she said, “He always said you massaged his feet the best of all of us.”

I nodded, then lay down next to him, holding onto his foot, and we stayed there, Paati, my mother, and I, keeping vigil over his body through the night.

Early next morning, the men came, dressed in white lungis, the traditional wrapcloth worn by Tamil men.  His brothers, my father, other male relatives and friends, they all came, to escort him to his cremation site.  I prepared to go with them, but was met with the cold response from the priests, “It is no place for a woman.”  My father didn’t make eye contact with me as I burst out crying, “I’m going with him!”  They walked away, a procession of men, carrying away the only person who truly loved me, and who I loved.  I followed them, out the gates, down the street, crying, until someone, I don’t know who, caught up to me and led me back home.

I follow their path in my mind.

I imagine this is what happens.

My father and male relatives are with him, a caravan of men dressed in white, taking him away, led by a priest, swinging a chalice with smoking ash.  They chant as they go, the monotonous death chant.  Passersby stop in respect, traffic gives way; no one crosses the path of the funeral procession.  They arrive at the cremation site and they place him on the prepared logs of wood.  As he has no sons, my father takes on the role of lighting the cremation pyre.  As he walks up with the oil soaked stick, he starts to cry.  He wonders briefly, is he really dead?  He touches the lit stick to the pyre and then steps back, watching the fire catch, then flame and burn.  He stands there, as close as he can, until the priests draw him away.

I imagine this is what happens.

I wait for them to return.

I wait a long time.

Someone tries to get me to bathe.  “It is bad luck,” they say.  “The spirit is still here.  It doesn’t know what to do.  It wants to stay where it is familiar.  If you don’t wash the mark of death away, the spirit will attach itself to you.  Come, come and bathe.”

The spirit is still here?  He is still here? 

I look around his room.  I’m on his narrow bed, my head on his pillow, my body covered by his blanket.  I wonder briefly at the oddity of a grown man having a pink blanket, and then I look around again.  His clothes are in the closet, his favorite walking stick is by the bed, his spectacles are on his glass-topped desk.

His spirit is still here.  I can feel him around me, I can smell his scent.

“I don’t care,” I say.  “I want him to stay with me.”

They back away, making the signs to ward off evil.  I laugh a little.  As though my Thatha could ever be considered evil.  “He can stay with me.”

I hear them talking to my mother outside the room.  She responds, indistinct through the walls.  She must have told them to leave me alone, because they do not return.  I thank her silently.

I chase a floater across my eye, but it eludes me, staying just on the periphery of my vision.  I close my eyes in frustration, but the floaters remain, my constant companions.  I feel wetness build up behind my eyelids, leaking out the sides, down my face, pooling in my ears.  I turn, curling up, folding myself into the blanket, making it a part of me, soft, filled with his familiar scent: Old Spice and Brylcream.   It is mine now.

He doesn’t need it anymore.

Memoir Musings: The Swimsuit

Swish.  Swish.  Click.  Swish.

I watch the fan blades slowly move above my head, the stutter just a part of the rhythm.  I’m laying on the family bed upstairs, limbs askew, full from lunch.  As though from a distance, I hear the cars pass by on the street below, the chatter of the goatherds taking their animals through the town, the occasional lorry taking an illegal shortcut through our street, cutting through to the warehouse district, the food vendors hawking their goods, loud, poetic, repetitive.  The wail of a baby in the house next door slowly rises until it abruptly stops.  I wonder briefly, did it suffocate?  The thought floats away, followed by nothing.  I gaze up at the blades, willing them to move faster.   The fan is helpless in the face of the stultifying heat; it is high summer in Coimbatore.

I think longingly of the pond in my Thatha’s village, envisioning the cool, wet mud under my feet as I wade into the dark waters, pushing away the tendrils of the lotus plants, beautiful but treacherous to the unsuspecting.  If only we were there, I think.  Then I sit up.  I remember the overflow tank next to the well at the back of the property.

I open up the camphor chest at the foot of the bed, lifting out the wooden trays, old linens, saris, searching.  And then I find it: my mother’s old swimsuit.  A pale salmon one piece with ruffles all over, I’ve wanted to try it on ever since I saw it earlier that week.  My mother had been putting away some of her out-of-season, elaborate saris, and had come across her old swimsuit.  She sat there for a minute, holding it, lost in her memories, and then showed it to me.  I wanted to try it on, but she was impatient to be done and took it back.  It has been calling to me, every time I walk by the chest.  Now I have a reason to wear it.

I lock the bedroom door and take off my cotton shift.  Do I take off my panties too?  I’m not sure, I have never worn a swimsuit before.  I stand there, holding it, turning it this way and that, trying to find a zipper, some way to open it up so I can put it on.  Tears of frustration well in my eyes, until it clicks: I have to step in and pull it up around me.  Of course!  I quickly take off my panties, and looking over at the locked door, surreptitiously place one foot and then the other into the suit, tugging it up and over my hips, and then feed my arms through the straps.  The crossover straps  thwart me at first, but I pull them over my head and force my arms through.  Sweating, I stand there, successful, in my mother’s suit.

Now the fear starts to build.  What if someone walks in?  No, the door is locked.  What would they think if they tried the door and found it locked?  What would I say I was doing?  Panicking, I unlock the door, then crouch behind it, holding my shift in front of me, a thin protection.  I think of the path I have to take through the house, all the opportunities to be seen, half naked, wearing a swimsuit, and I almost give up.

It is however, that dead time between two and four in the afternoon, when everyone in the house is taking their afternoon nap.  I should have been as well, but I hadn’t been able to, the heat was so unbearable.

Bolstered by this thought, I inch down the stairs, through the dining room, into the laundry and mud room, and then finally ease the back screen door open.  I wait to see if anyone has heard me, then head down the few steps to the back patio.  The old well looms in the distance, framed by Thatha’s coconut trees.  Looking back towards the house one last time, I pick my way past the rose bushes, lime, mango, and pomegranate trees, to the back of the property.

The well is large, grey cement, circular, with a great pumping mechanism built into the top, a mesh screen to prevent debris from falling in, and steps spiraling up to the rim.  The overflow tank is to the left of the well, a brown square cement tank, with a couple steps up.  The top of the tank is high above my head, as I stand there looking up at it.  It sits there, brooding, waiting.  I can hear the occasional caw of the neighborhood crows, and the noises of passersby on the street seem distant.  A slight movement at the edge of my vision makes me jump.  Panicking, I look over, but it is just a scrawny tabby, hunched on the wall, watching me.  I stick my tongue out at it, laugh, and climb the steps up to the tank.

From the top step, I can just reach across the gap and touch the top of the well.  The cement feels cool and grainy under my fingers.  I flatten my hands on the top, getting ready to hoist myself up when I hear a distant plop…Thatha had told me that frogs lived in there.  I shudder slightly, thinking of the slimy creatures moving around at the bottom of the well, and step back.  Looking back at the tank, I notice that the water is more than three quarters of the way full, and completely still.  There is a thin, oily film on the surface, and then I see a dragonfly alight, breaking the surface tension.  The ripples are miniscule, and seem to take a really long time moving to the edges of the tank.

I have never been this close to the tank before; Thatha had always warned me away.  Exhilarated at what I am about to do, I shiver a little, and then with quick jump, lift myself onto the top of the wall.  Overbalancing, I feel myself slide down the other side and catch myself, scraping my legs, frantic not to fall into the water.  I laugh at myself, not fall into the water?  That’s why I am here!  “Silly goose,” I mutter.  I look at the still water again, and then slowly ease my feet and legs in.  The cool water accepts my limbs, soothing the angry welts and calming me.  The dark tank walls make it so I can’t see very far into the depths, but I can see, faintly, the top of my feet, floating gently below the surface.  I waggle my feet, watching the ripples.

Seeing movement again, I look over to see that the tabby has moved closer in, watching me intently.  As I meet its eyes, its tail twitches, ever so slightly.  I look slowly away, uncertain, feeling hunted.  Gazing back at the water, I think about the village pond again.  I had walked in, my Paati next to me, the cool mud always under my feet, the water at waist level.  I hadn’t gone any further, staying at the edges, safe.  I think about my mother, wearing this suit, swimming in a large pool, in a foreign land.  None of my friends have ever swum before.  I have never swum before.  A sudden bolt of jealousy sweeps through me.  How hard could it be?  I think.  I’ve seen people swimming in movies, their arms and legs moving in unison, cutting through the water in effortless motion.  Squeezing my eyes tight, I try to remember the sequence of their strokes, their movement.  I think I have it.  Arms first, then kick both legs together.  Opening my eyes, I see the cat, now on the well wall, crouched, motionless.

I slide into the tank.

The cool dark waters envelope me, the sounds of the street and crows disappear, and all I can hear is the thrum of the bloodbeat in my ears.

Thruh Thrum.

Thruh Thrum.

I open my eyes.  Sudden burning.  I open my mouth.  Water floods in.

Thruh Thrum.

Thruh Thrum.

I can’t remember the strokes.  I can’t find my arms.  I look up and see the distant square of the afternoon sky, murky, receding.

And then an arm.

Grasping.

Snagging my hair.

Pulling.

Noise.  Angry noise.  Street and crows.

Face down on the dirt.

Water pouring out of me.

Thruh Thrum.

Thruh Thrum.

Memoir Musings: The Chocolates

A memory:  Late summer, 1988.  Thatha, standing at the Borneo House gates, still handsome with a big toothless smile on his face, slightly stooped but regal, one hand resting on his beloved black-handled, rubber-tipped aluminum walking stick, the other hand raised high, waving me goodbye.  He’s wearing a white tee shirt, his lungi- the traditional wrapcloth worn by Tamil men- firmly tied around his waist, and a small bag of foil-wrapped chocolates tucked inside.

I have just given him those chocolates that morning, the last morning of my visit, before heading back to college in the States.  I remember how happy he was to get them, eyes lighting up as he took them from me.  Paati said, “See?  She kept them hidden until now, just so you could have them after she’s gone.”

He nods, glowing with happiness at this meager gift from his granddaughter.

I smile back, taking their praise at my strength of will in keeping the chocolates secret.  I kneel down in front of them, silently asking for their blessings.  I touch each of their feet and then my forehead with my right hand, feeling their ritual touch on my head and then seeing their proud smiles as I stand up, my Thatha’s eyes cloudy with tears.  I hug them both gently, saying the traditional farewell in Tamil, “I am going, but I will return.”

They look at each other in wonderment, amazed at my words, since all they have ever known was my rebellion against anything traditional.  “Go, but come back,” they both give me the reciprocal response.  “Go, but come back.”

The car to the airport pulls away as I twist around for one last look at them out of the rear window.  They are both standing there, waving, framed by the swirling dust kicked up by the car.  I strain to keep them in sight, turning back to face the front when I can no longer see them.  Watching the familiar streets go by, the neighborhood teashops, the food vendors, swarms of people, the stray dogs, I think about the joy on my grandfather’s face when he saw the small bag of chocolates.  I can’t get that image out of my head.

—————–x—————————x———————————x——————————-

I had arrived three weeks earlier, on winter break from college.  I was in my old room upstairs, the one I stayed in for that brief and eventful six months in late 1982.  I looked around, my old schoolbooks were where I’d left them on the little desk, dusty, undisturbed.  Eighties Bollywood actresses stared up at me from old entertainment magazines, stunning in all their airbrushed beauty.  I looked out the windows at the majestic chickoo tree that dominated the front garden, my friend for all those years of visiting my grandparents, a watchful confidant, home to the resident fruit bats that kept me company through long sleepless nights.

Shaking away the memories, I unpacked for the stay, setting aside the gifts I had brought them: a scarf for Paati, Wincarnis tonic wine for Thatha, other little sundries that they had requested from overseas, things that were unavailable at the time in India.  I pulled out a large bag of foil wrapped chocolates, the ones with the gooey centers, the ones I knew he would like. But at the last moment, as I was gathering up the gifts to take downstairs to give them, I tossed them back in my suitcase.  Our favorite Swiss chocolates, Toblerones, were included in the pile of gifts.  That would be enough, I reasoned.

Later that night, as I lay in bed, windows open to let the cool night breezes waft in, listening to the rustling sounds of the bats in the trees, I unwrapped one of the chocolates and popped it in my mouth.  As the creamy deliciousness melted in my mouth, I closed my eyes in guilty pleasure, smoothing out the creased foil paper with my nails, bringing it back to a fragile smoothness.  I tucked the paper away in my bag, and went to sleep.

I ate those chocolates meant for my grandfather, night after night, for the rest of my stay.  During the day, I would watch him set aside his hated dentures, carefully portion out the Toblerone, cutting one triangle into halves, sharing them with me (Paati didn’t want any).  We would eat them together, relishing the nougat, sucking on the piece to make it last.  At night, I would take the same care with eating one out of the stashed bag, taking my time, rolling it around in my mouth until the last bit had melted away.  Then I would smooth out the foil and tuck it away in my bag.

The morning of my departure, I had maybe twelve of the chocolates left.  By now I was slightly sick of them and taking them back home with me seemed ridiculous.  I’ll give them to Thatha, I thought, he’ll love them. 

—————–x—————————x———————————x——————————-

I sit in the car, watching the city fall away, coconut tree plantations and farms slide by, the agricultural college, seeing it all from behind a veil of tears.  I picture his toothless grin, his joy at seeing those chocolates.  I can see them both, in my mind’s eye, standing there at the gates, waving, happy, proud.

“Go, and come back.”

“I am going, but I will return.”

I will return.  And I will make up for this insult, I will bring you bags of chocolates, more than you will know what to do with.  I promise. 

That was the last time I saw him on his feet, conscious, fully alive.

Memoir Musings: Flying Solo

It is midnight and I stumble onto the Singapore Airlines plane, right foot first (for good luck and safe travels), dragging my carry-on bag behind me.  It takes a while for the passengers in front of me to find their seats, harried little old Asian women and men, Indian families going home for the summer break, babies wailing their discomfort at being awake at the odd hour.  I find my window seat and sit down, relaxing into the scratchy fabric, peace washing over me.  I wonder briefly at the notion that I feel at home on international flights, but then I remember the reason for this trip to Coimbatore.  I look down at the book in my lap, and then blindly out the window.  The flight attendant starts talking about the safety procedures and my mind wanders to another trip, another plane ride, another time.

————————————-x———————–x——————————————-

I was eleven.  On my first solo trip to Coimbatore, to visit my grandparents for the summer.  I had been so excited the days leading up to this point: shopping for my new travel purse (a round white pleather bag, long cross-body strap, with an image of the Taj Mahal on the front), packing my clothes in my new suitcase. But now that the day was here, I was scared.  As I said goodbye to my mother and baby sister, I clutched my purse close to me and put on a brave face.  My mother held me close for a moment, and then I was off, headed to the car with my dad.  During the drive, I received detailed instructions on what I was to do at every step of the journey, and then he repeated them again, to reassure both of us that nothing could go wrong.  As I picked out a Nancy Drew book and Five Star chocolate bars at the airport newsstand, I could hear my father talking to the Indian Airlines flight attendant who would be responsible for me, and her soothing responses back to him. 

I walked on the plane, an early boarder with the other solo children, dressed in their maroon school blazers, all of them headed back to their boarding school in Ooty, a couple hours’ drive from Coimbatore.  Envy ate at me, watching their easy interaction with each other and the flight staff; they had done this countless times before.  I pretended a nonchalance I didn’t feel, giving them a cool stare when they looked over at me, and was surprised when my nervousness eased. 

“Are you a new student?  Are you going to our school?” one of the girls asked me.

“No,” I said shyly, barely making eye contact with her.  “I’m going to my grandparents for the summer.”

“Oh.  Without your parents?  That’s odd.”  She dismissed me and turned back to her friends, sliding easily back into their chatter.  I watched them for a little while and then turned to my book.

As the plane filled with the rest of the travelers, I thought about what she said.  Was it odd?  It had come about rather suddenly, the talk about me going away for the summer.  I reflected back a month or so…all I could think of were my exams, and how hard they had been.  I was behind in math, science, and hindi, and dreaded every night, when after dinner, my dad would start in on me and my inability to retain what he had tutored me on the night before.  “Idiot, you’re an idiot.” 

My mother, clearing the table of the dinner dishes, head down, not making eye contact with me.  She knew the drill…interject and bear the brunt of his wrath.  She did, sometimes, but not that night.  My sister was almost two, her teeth were coming in, and her crying was the accompaniment to our evenings. 

I cringed, which made him even angrier.  “What are you doing that for?  Did I hit you?  No!  I should!  Maybe that would make you learn better!”

My eyes welling with tears, I tried to recite back to him the multiplication table, stammering through it, messing up halfway through.  He threw back his chair, dragged me out of mine, and hit me, across the face, and then on my back.  “Idiot.  Can’t remember anything!  Go to your room.”

I sat, looking at the Nancy Drew book in my lap.  I was still on page one, chapter one.  The flight attendant was announcing our imminent arrival at the Coimbatore airport. 

As we hit the tarmac and coasted along the runway, I looked out the window at the hordes of people waiting by the gates, waiting to welcome their loved ones off the plane.  I scanned the crowd, easily spotting him standing towards the back, a tall man, one arm on his hip, the other shading his eyes, tracking the plane’s movements. 

My grandfather.  Thatha.

I smiled.

————————————-x———————–x——————————————-

The engines start up, the flight attendants close the doors, the high pitched whine of the engines reach a fevered pitch, and the plane pulls away from the gate.  The familiar scent of airplane deodorant mixed with the smell of the fabric seats and the recycled air washes over me, relaxing me.

I’m leaving earth for a while.

I smile.

Memoir Musings: The Phone that Rings in the Night

I startle awake, fear coursing like an icy torrent through my body. I look around the dark, silent room, reaching automatically under my pillow for my glasses. As I put them on, the phone rings.

My stomach clenches. I look blindly towards the alarm clock: 3 a.m. I have been trained over the years of living continents away from my homeland, to fear the phone that rings in the night.

The phone rings again. I know it is for me but I can’t move. If I don’t pick it up, the bad thing won’t happen.

Irritated, Jennifer rolls out of the upper bunk, hitting the floor with an angry thud, and walks over to the wall to answer the phone, “Hello? What? Yes, she’s here.”

She hands the phone on its long extension cord to me and climbs back into her bed, falling easily back to sleep.

I hold it with both hands, not lifting it up to my ear, hearing the tinny voice of someone saying “Hello? Hello?”

Finally, I reply, “Yes?”

“Priya? It’s Daddy. Not to worry, everything is okay. Thatha fell. He’s in the hospital. Everything is okay. He’s asking for you. You have to come.”

Thatha fell. He’s asking for you. Everything is okay.

I start crying softly, so as to not be heard by my father, or Jennifer. He hears it anyways. “It’s okay Priya, he’s okay.” But then, before he can control himself, a shaking sob rolls out of him, down the phone lines, across the miles, across the continents, into my ear, scaring me. My father never cries.

There’s silence, as though the sound scared him as well.

Finally, softly, “He’s okay, he just wants to see you. I will send you the money for the ticket. Just come, okay?”

I nod, then say into the phone, “Yes.”