Authors: Anita Rau Badami
Satpal looked up, appreciating his normally quiet wife’s shrewd political sense, but shook his head. On this matter he could not agree with her. Indira Gandhi should keep her head down, stay out of this matter, send those Pakistani refugees back where they came from. As if India did not have enough people! As if they did not have urgent needs, more important than war. If there was another war with Pakistan, as the rumours went, black-market profiteering would start, prices of necessary commodities like petrol, kerosene, sugar, rice and wheat would certainly go up and business would come down. “War might be good for your Madam Gandhi’s image,” he said. “But for people like you and me it is bad. It is always bad.”
He shook the newspaper and went into the bedroom to deal with his accounts. In the room he had just left, the children started a quarrel. Busy in the kitchen, Nimmo ignored their shrill bickering until Kamal set up a loud wail. Nimmo could stand it no longer.
“Stop it, both of you!” she yelled, brandishing the rolling pin that had so far yielded a stack of ten parathas. “Pappu, leave your sister alone.”
“I’m not doing anything!” grumbled Pappu. “She won’t let me do my homework. She took my pencil.” He swatted at his sister with a rolled-up notebook, and Kamal screamed louder.
Nimmo called to Satpal, “Ji, what are you doing? Can’t you take care of these children?”
Satpal left the pile of bills he had been poring over and, picking up Kamal, gave her a look of mock ferocity. She was his undisputed pet, and he could never scold her. “Why were you bothering your older brother?”
“Daddy, he won’t give me a pencil,” Kamal complained, making her eyes round and innocent.
“Why didn’t you come to me, instead of disturbing Pappu?” Satpal asked. He sat her firmly in one corner with paper and another pencil, and peace was restored in the small house. Nimmo smiled as she spun the rolling pin over the last of the parathas and thought of the letter that had recently arrived from Bibi-ji. Jasbeer continued to do well. He would definitely be here in December, when his school was closed for the Christmas holidays. He had many friends. He missed his parents but had settled into a routine. His teacher at school thought he had the makings of a lawyer, perhaps a doctor. Maybe even an engineer.
Nimmo was torn between pride at her son’s accomplishments—unaware that they were mostly the product of Bibi-ji’s guilty imagination—and anger with herself for having yielded him to Bibi-ji so quickly. She recalled his one visit home and her pain when he had insisted on returning with Bibi-ji—it had broken her heart, but she told herself
again and again that that it was the best thing for him—a solid education, a safe, stable life, none of the distractions that her other children had here, crammed into this tiny house, with power cuts every day, and water problems.
“It is like those rich people who send their children to boarding school so that they can get the best education,” Satpal had comforted her. “For us it is even better—he is the only child at your aunt’s ‘boarding school’!”
But there were many dark moments when Nimmo twisted the knife in her own heart, telling herself she had sold her son, wondering whether Jasbeer was really okay, if he was still angry with her for sending him away.
Her thoughts were rudely interrupted when Pappu let out a triumphant shout: “Mummy, look at what Kamal is doing!”
“Kamal, what are you doing?” Nimmo demanded wearily.
“Nothing,” Kamal replied, pressing up against the wall and looking guilty.
“She drew with her pencils on the wall,” Pappu said with a virtuous expression.
Nimmo lost her temper then, thoroughly. She pulled Kamal to her feet and smacked her bottom. “You naughty girl!” she yelled. “I clean this house all day long, I try to make it look nice and you behave like a junglee!”
Kamal burst into tears, and the uproar brought Satpal out of the bedroom again.
what’s going on?” he asked.
Nimmo looked fiercely at Satpal. “Look at what this wretched girl has done to the wall!” She pointed an accusing
finger at the scribble of stick figures running up the white wall and again whacked Kamal, who dodged neatly away and took shelter behind her father’s legs. Nimmo’s hand swept through thin air.
Satpal tried not to grin but couldn’t help it. He pulled the child to him and said soothingly to Nimmo, “What a big fuss over nothing! All it needs is a bit of choona. We have to whitewash this house anyway …”
“And after that, if this nuisance child draws on it again? Still you will pet her and spoil her?” Nimmo was unwilling to give up her anger.
Satpal lifted Kamal and held her so that their eyes were level. “Listen carefully, my princess: one more time I see this drawing business on the wall and I will be very angry also, you understand?”
That night, in bed, after the children had gone to sleep, Satpal said, “I think this house is getting too small for us.”
Nimmo was aghast. “I don’t want to move,” she blurted out. This was home, she felt safe here. In spite of Asha.
“Who said anything about moving? We can’t afford a new house. No, I was thinking we could add another room upstairs. For Pappu, and for when Bibi-ji comes again with Jasbeer.”
“Oh no!” Nimmo said involuntarily.
“What? You don’t want more space?”
“No, I mean yes, I do. It’s just that that stupid Asha will go on and on and on about it. She will put the evil eye on us, I know it, with her jealousy.”
“Why do you let that woman bother you so much, Nimmo?” Satpal murmured sleepily. “Let her say what she wants. This is our life, we will do what we want.”
Yes, brooded Nimmo, gazing at the square of night sky outlined by the window, cut into dark slices by the bars, each with its sprinkling of stars. Yes, it was her life. But there were hundreds of people like Asha out there who were willing to tear it into little bits for no particular reason. She would rather stay in a small, crowded place and attract no comment than invite Asha’s jealousy with another room. She feared that envious gaze for who knew what miseries it might invoke.
The following Saturday the children were sent to spend the day at a cousin’s house, and Satpal’s friend Harnam arrived with pots of whitewash.
“How long is this going to take?” Nimmo asked. She had moved all their belongings to the middle of each room and covered them with sheets of plastic.
“Don’t worry, sister,” Harnam said. “I will do the outside walls and Satpal will work on the inside. We should be done by evening.”
At noon they stopped and Harnam went home for lunch and a brief nap, promising to return in an hour. Satpal continued painting. Nimmo watched his bare back as he worked away at the walls, wishing she hadn’t made quite such a fuss over Kamal’s drawings. Come to think of it, they were sweet pictures. The child had been drawing her family, and Nimmo had whacked her for it. “Can we leave Kamal’s pictures like that?” she asked.
Satpal was astonished. “What? Why am I wasting time painting, then?”
“Did I ask you to paint the walls? You were the one who came up with this idea,” Nimmo said defensively.
“You are crazy,” Satpal said. “No, I am not leaving that monkey’s drawing. And you can help me, instead of standing there and coming up with silly thoughts.”
Nimmo giggled. “Me? You want
to paint a wall? I don’t know how!”
“You know how to read and write and you can’t hold a brush and move it on a bare wall? Come, try it!”
Again Nimmo giggled, feeling like a girl. It seemed years since she had had a moment alone with Satpal. It
years! She took the brush from her husband and dabbed the wall ineffectually with it, spattering most of the whitewash on the floor. Satpal came up behind her and gently caught her wrist.
“Like this,” he murmured, his breath warm in her ear, teasing the drifts of hair that had worked loose from her braid. He dipped the brush in the can of wash, carefully stroked the excess off on the rim and then, holding her hand still, showed Nimmo how to wield it firmly, smoothly. “Like this, like this,” he whispered.
She could smell his sweat; feel the heat of his body against her back, her hips and her thighs. She leaned back slightly, wishing that Harnam would not return. Her heart drummed. With his left hand, Satpal cupped her full breast and teased her nipple through the cloth of her kameez. The brush dropped out of her hand and they both collapsed on the floor, laughing and pulling at each other’s clothes.
“I haven’t locked the door,” Nimmo whispered, pushing Satpal’s fumbling hands away from the string of her salwar and undoing it in one quick motion.
“The whole world sleeps in the afternoon,” Satpal murmured. He pushed her kameez up and kissed her belly.
“What if Harnam comes back?”
“He must be doing the same thing with his wife,” Satpal said. He pushed into her and she spread her hands flat against the wet, newly painted walls, the smell of sex mingling forever in her mind with that of fresh whitewash.
After they had hurriedly cleaned up, only five minutes before Harnam reappeared, Nimmo noticed her handprints on the bottom of the wall—upside down—and beside hers, one of Satpal’s as well, right side up.
“Leave it,” she said, giving him a shy look when he pointed it out to her with a big grin. “If our children can draw on our walls, why can’t we?”
In the following years, the house was whitewashed twice again, but Satpal took care not to erase those handprints; and Nimmo blushed like a bride every time he commented loudly on their existence.
“Look!” he would tell his children. “Look, your poor mother and I had to kneel on the floor and paint the walls. So much trouble!”
And the children would wonder aloud why their mother’s handprints were upside down.
And for years, whenever she thought of that day Nimmo felt the same hot rush of desire, the same trembling excitement, followed by a happiness she could barely contain. Even later, the time came when she would
sit in the same room, dark and filthy and smelling of death rather than fresh paint, and yet when her eyes landed on those faded handprints, the single large one beside her own two, she would feel a tiny spark of that distant, joyous moment when her husband’s body had lain on hers, warm and so very alive.
The Diwali festival came with a flickering of thousands of oil lamps on walls and balconies, verandas and pyols. Although it was a Hindu festival, everyone who lived in the gully celebrated it with equal fervour, forgetting the reason behind it and keeping only the exuberant beauty of it in mind. As she made the sweets for the festival, Nimmo remembered Jasbeer. He used to love letting off the firecrackers in front of their home with dozens of other children from the neighbouring houses.
This year, however, beneath the gaiety, the sombre whisper of war gathered force.
A few months later, on a cold afternoon in early December, the rumours became fact. Satpal returned home bearing rolls of black paper.
“We are at war!” he said with barely suppressed excitement. He had planned to build the extra room for the children that month, but now the city buzzed with talk of war. People huddled together on the streets, blowing into their hands to warm their fingers and fearfully discussing what would be the third war with their neighbour in the twenty-four years since Partition.
“We are at war!” Satpal repeated. He thrust the rolls of paper into Nimmo’s startled hands and said, “We must cover
our windows for the blackout. The government has said.” He caught sight of Nimmo’s expression. “You are afraid? No need! We will thrash the Pakistanis, you wait and see!”
Nimmo said nothing. She hated this aspect of his character, his delight in the manly business of war.
Satpal put his fingers to her chin and tilted her face up as if she were one of the children. “What? Still scared? I am telling you—”
scared,” she said. “I am
Why do we waste so much time and money fighting with people? Hanh?”
“But this is a necessary war,” Satpal said. He sounded annoyed by her refusal to join in his excitement. “We are trying to help those poor Bangladeshis. It is our duty!”
Nimmo turned away, fighting back tears. Silently she began to cut the black paper to fit the windows. A necessary war, she thought bleakly, snipping hard at the paper. From whose point of view? she wanted to know. The dead? The maimed? The orphans and the widows? Another thought came to her, filling her with disappointment. Jasbeer would not be able to come home this December if the war continued for very long. She would write Bibi-ji an urgent letter advising her to cancel their flight bookings.
That night, as the air-raid sirens screamed, Nimmo went around the house quickly turning out the electric lights and lighting the kerosene lanterns. Pappu and Kamal thought this an exciting game and entertained themselves by making finger shadows on the freshly whitened walls. Nimmo reached for Kamal, held her and rocked her gently, thinking,
My children should be spared this adventure.
“Why don’t you read to us from the Guru Granth Sahib?” Satpal asked, his voice strange and loud in the shadowy darkness.
“Yes Mummy, please!” Pappu whispered, bored now of folding his fingers into deer and fox and camel.
Nimmo went to the steel almirah and drew the book from the topmost shelf. She removed the dark blue silk cloth that covered it, kissed it reverently. As she opened it a piece of paper fell from its pages. Pappu reached out and picked up the faded rectangle. It was the postcard from Canada, with Bibi-ji’s writing on it.
“What is this, Mummy?” He examined the card. “Is this a picture of a bear? Can I keep it?”
“No!” Nimmo said, louder than she meant to. “No, this is mine.”
She slipped the card back into the Guru Granth Sahib. One day she might be able to tell her children about those hidden things inside her head. About a small girl crouching in a barrel of grain and a woman whose dangling feet had smelled of a pale violet soap. She would tell them about fear and hate and loss. In this way she would prepare them for the world and its wickedness. Then they would know what to do if that same world bared its teeth at them.