I closed my ears to my father's tale and asked instead, "Dadda, why is Ma so quiet?"
Perhaps I would run away, then Ma would rise from her silence and wail after me, "My darling, come back." I packed my Meenu doll, a toothbrush and the chocolate bar Dadda had bought from Billimoria Uncle's petrol bunk.
"Where are you going, my kishmish?" asked Linda Ayah absently.
Even Linda had no time for me, so busy was she fussing over Ma, who was now beginning to look like a taut and lustrous mango.
"Nowhere," I said, shifting my bag to the other hand.
Linda Ayah looked up sharply. "Uh-huh, what mischief are you up to, monkey-child?" she asked.
I burst into tears and immediately Linda Ayah became all attentive and sweet. "My kanmani, my baby, Linda will hoof-hoof everything away," she said, wiping my face with the end of her sari, stroking my hair. "Now what is happening, tell me?"
It all tumbled out. Ma had gone away somewhere, only a ghost lived in her body. When Dadda went out of town on line duty I was allowed to sleep in Ma's room, and when I woke in the night for water or pee-pee, she was not there. The verandah door was open, and when I thought I was going to dry up from thirst, the ghost wandered in pretending to be my mother.
"You dream too much," said Linda Ayah, her veined arms tight about my body.
"Your Ma is not a ghost. She loves you still but you are too heavy for her. She has a baby inside her tummy now, my sugar bit."
I had three months to get used to the idea of having another child in the house.
When it came time for the baby to be born, Ma went back to her mother's home in Mandya. My grandmother's house was full of people, some of whom lived there and others who visited for a couple of days, caught up on all the family gossip and left. I liked the house, for unlike the Railway colony house we lived in, there seemed to be no secrets lurking in the corners of rooms, and best of all, none of the ghosts and goblins about which Linda Ayah told me. Ma was a different person here, giggling with her sisters, allowing her aunts and cousins to pamper her. I wished we could live in that house forever.
When my sister was born, all the relatives were surprised at how dark she was.
"Where did this one come from?" remarked Chinna, Ma's widowed aunt, who was a permanent member of my grandmother's household. She cupped the baby's head with one gnarled hand and cradled its tiny bottom with the other.
"No one in our family is as black as this child. Must be from your husband's side," said Ajji, my grandmother. "She looks like a sweeper-caste child."
How cruel Ajji was, I thought. I glanced at Ma, lying in bed refusing to comment, watching dreamily as the baby was oiled and massaged, bathed and rocked to sleep by Chinna or Ajji. She took my sister from them only to feed her, allowing me to watch the infant suck and snort at the plump nipple. She let me touch the baby's cheek, smiling as the creature left the breast to suck blindly in the direction of my wondering finger.
"Seesee, she likes you already," she laughed. "She knows that her big sister is going to look after her."
"Meghna, that's what we will name her," suggested Ajji. "She is like a dark, rain-filled cloud."
Ma did not agree. "No," she said, "her name is Roopa."
Afterwards, people looked at the two of us and said that we looked like the sun and its shadow. Ma held Roopa against her breast and said, "No, not the sun and its shadow. You have it all wrong. Kamini and Roopa---wealth and beauty---that is what my two daughters are."
And some people raised their eyebrows as if to say, "That darkblack thing, a beauty? Only a fond mother's eyes can see beauty where it does not lie. After all, if you ask a crow who sings the best in the world, won't she point to her own chick?"
Copyright Anita Rau Badami. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Algonquin.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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