I called my mother every Sunday from the silence of my basement apartment, reluctant to tell her how I yearned to get away from this freezing cold city where even the traffic sounds were muffled by the snow.
"Well, who asked you to go?" Ma would have demanded. "Did somebody tie your hands behind your back and say 'Go-go to that Calgary North Pole place'?"
So instead I said, "Ma, there are mountains in the distance, all covered with snow. I can see them gleaming like silver cones in the sunlight when I go outside my apartment."
"You sound like a travel brochure," said Ma. "I hope you wear that sweater your Aunty Lalli knit for you, you catch cold so easily."
"These mountains are almost as tall as the Eastern Ghats. Do you remember that trip with Dadda in his inspection saloon?"
"The Western Ghats."
"We never went up the Western Ghats, Ma. You are talking about the Eastern Ghats."
"Don't tell me what I am talking about," snapped Ma. "We went up Bhore Ghat and you started crying when the engine had to reverse downhill because you thought we were going to crash off the cliffs. Roopa had an asthmatic attack---your father left us nothing but a legacy of sickness---and that foolish office peon we had then, what was his name?"
"Bhurey Lal," I said. "But Ma, that was not on Bhore Ghat. You are inventing your memories."
"Yes, Bhurey Lal, he was loyal though, do you remember, he stayed up all night leaning against the fridge door because every time the train jerked the door flew open and all the food fell out? Do you remember now?"
"Ma, I remember perfectly, but it was on the Araku Valley section. Where we stopped in the middle of the Dandakaranya forest and Dadda told us that this was the same forest in the Ramayana where Sita was kidnapped by the demon Ravana. And we got fresh honey from the tribals in the forest."
"Kamini, what tribals? You are making up stories."
"Why do you always believe that I am making up stories? I don't, I never have."
"There you go again," said Ma, triumphant. "What did I tell you? Hanh?"
I sighed and changed the subject. Ma still wanted to win every argument, she would never-ever change.
The year that I turned six, I began to sense a strange movement deep inside Ma's body, a pulsing beneath the skin. Yes, certainly there was a difference. I, who was so sensitive to every nuance in my mother, could feel it every time I climbed into her lap. Ma sat motionless in the verandah, and her hands, normally busy with knitting or hemming, darning or cutting, lay quiet on the folds of her sari. She barely spoke, and I felt that if I had missed my mother before, when she disappeared into one of her moody silences, now I had lost her completely.
She wouldn't allow me on her lap, pushed me gently away, pleading in a distant voice,
"Baby, I am tired, go and play."
I was suffused with a helpless jealousy against this thing that had stolen Ma. Not even my father's hug, his stories about the man-eater of Kantabhanji, the elephant who fell in love with a steam engine, the beehives hanging like upside-down palaces beneath a forest bridge, none of these stories diminished my hurt.
"Noni," said Dadda, "come, I will tell you about the Lakshman-jhoola bridge. That bridge is hundreds of years old, it is said, made of rope and wood and prayers. It swings thin as a dream over the River Ganga thundering down a rocky gorge, and on the underside of the bridge is a city of bees. You can hear their buzzing over the sound of rushing water, and you have to walk across the Lakshman-jhoola without shaking it even a bit, for then the queen bee wakes up from her sleep and sends her armies after you. Noni, are you listening?"
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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