In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman. The man was in fact German, but in small-town India in those days, all white foreigners were largely thought of as British. This unconcern for accuracy annoyed my scholarly father even in circumstances as dire as losing his wife to another man.
The day my mother left was like any other. It was a monsoon morning. I was nine and at St. Joseph’s School, which was not far from our house, only a fifteen-minute cycle ride away. My bicycle was still a little too tall for me. I wore my uniform: white shirt, blue shorts, and shoes that were shiny black in the morning and powdery brown by midday. My hair lay flat to an even, straight line that came down to just above my eyebrows. In the mornings it was a wet cap plastered to my head. My mother used to cut my hair, seating me on a stool in the inner courtyard next to the kitchen, and through the half hour of the haircut the only words spoken were variations on “How much longer?” and “Don’t move.”
Every morning I rang my bicycle’s tinny bell until my mother emerged, nighttime sari rumpled, hair and face fuzzy with sleep. She came and drooped against one of the verandah’s white pillars as if she might fall asleep again, standing. She was a late riser, summer or winter. She lingered in bed for as long as she could in a tight embrace with her pillow. Banno Didi, my ayah, woke me up and got me ready for school, and in turn I woke my mother. She said I was her alarm clock.
My mother didn’t care how she looked, yet she was always striking, dressed up or smeared with color across her forehead. When she painted sitting outside in the sun she wore a wide-brimmed straw hat with a red ribbon into which she stuck flowers, paintbrushes, feathers, whatever caught her eye. None of my friends had mothers who wore a hat or climbed trees or hitched up their saris and rode a bicycle. Mine did. The first day when she was teaching herself to balance the bicycle, she went on and on, tottering, falling, sucking the blood off her grazes, getting back on again. Screaming with laughter, showing all her teeth like a wolf, my father said. She rode the bicycle into a line of flowerpots along the front verandah, her long hair came loose, her eyes sparkled, her sari was torn at the knee. But she sprang up and went back to the bike.
I don’t remember anything different about my mother in the hours before she ran off with the Englishman who was actually a German. Bulbous slate-gray clouds sat in wait that morning, low enough to touch. When my mother came out to see me off to school, she glanced up at the sky and shut her eyes with a squeal as she was showered by drops of water.
“Last night’s rain is still raining,” she said.
The big trees that shaded the house gleamed and when the wind shook their branches they set off showers from their wet leaves.
“The clouds are so dark, it’ll be a beautiful day. It’ll pour and pour and when the sun comes out there will be a rainbow right from here to the railway station.” She wiped her face with a corner of her sari. “You’d better hurry, you mustn’t get wet. Are you carrying an extra shirt in your bag? You are not to sit in class soaked to the skin, you’ll get fever.” I was about to go when she said, “Wait, leave that bicycle, come here.” She hugged me tight for a long minute, kissed me on the top of my head and then on my forehead. I wriggled to break free, I was not used to sticky displays of affection from her, it made me awkward and self-conscious. But her touch sent a current of joy through me and I cycled away hoping she saw how fast I was going through the puddles, churning up slush.
“Remember what I said!” she cried out. “Don’t be late.”
“I’ll be back in time,” I shouted. “I’ll cycle fast.”
I ran high fevers when I was little, waking with my body on fire, aware that my head was tipped back over a bucket and someone was pouring mug after mug of cold water over it. If the convulsions came, I could recall nothing other than a great exhaustion afterwards, when my skin turned damp and my mother’s voice near my ears said, “Will he get well? Will he get well?” My grandfather said, “Breathe deep,” and put his stethoscope against my chest. He brought his cotton-white head closer and shone a torch into my mouth. “Aaah?” he murmured. After that he made up bitter potions that he put into corked bottles marked with lines. The room was quiet. Shadows floated across it throughout the day and all I could hear was my mother rustling in and out, anxious whispers, the thup of a bottle being put back on a shelf, the splash of water going into a glass. And I slipped into darkness again.
My pet name was Myshkin, and unlike boyhood names which fade into distant memory along with the people who used them, this one stuck. My grandfather gave me that name because of my convulsions—like the epileptic prince in a book by Dostoevsky, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, Dada told me.
“I’m not an idiot,” I said.
“When you read The Idiot you’ll want to be one,” he said. “Innocents are what make humankind human.”
My fevers and fits made relatives pity me and ladle out advice that infuriated my mother. Once I was going up the stairs to the roof, and a visiting uncle from Karachi tapped my legs with a ruler and said to my father, “See how the knee flinches? That’s a sure sign of bone disease—no surprise the boy is so puny. I know a man. I’ll give you his address. He sends medicines all over India.”
This uncle had a know-it-all air that my mother detested. Whatever the subject, be it botany or architecture, he spoke with perfect authority. It was never simply a pillar, it had to be Doric or Corinthian, and if he walked past the big church at the corner of Bell Metal Road, he would point out the flying buttresses and then shake his head when I studied the sky to see what was flying. My mother asked him how he knew my bones were weak and he said, “Simple. I was a whisper away from a medical degree. The course was too dull for me.”
He turned from her to me. “Tell me, what’s heavier—a kilo of iron or a kilo of wool?”
I felt myself growing tense, I was sure it was a trick question, but before I could stop to think it through, I had blurted out, “Iron.”
“Think again,” he said, with a smirk. “Think again, my boy. One kilo of a heavy substance is the same weight as one kilo of a light substance.” He tapped my head with his ruler and said, “Can’t be weak everywhere, eh? If the body’s weak, the mind must be made stronger!” I must focus on developing my mind by learning chess, he said. “Alekhine, Tarrasch, Capablanca! Great minds in ailing bodies, all of them.”
I did not know who these chess masters were, nor if they had ailing bodies. I could only nod and search for an escape route, but my mother made sure this uncle never came to stay again. “Myshkin has chicken pox; Banno’s son has measles; the khansama seems to have cholera. One can’t be too careful,” she would write back if there was a letter from him announcing a visit. She made sure the excuse was a long-winded, contagious illness and if anyone pointed out that a string of infectious diseases with a doctor in the family was hardly believable, she would say the more patently false the excuse, the more obvious the truth.
As I grew older, the fevers and convulsions came less often. It was not epilepsy, it turned out. For a few weeks, then months, and then a whole year, there were none. After the second calm year my grandfather stopped pushing thermometers into my mouth at the slightest hint of fatigue in me and relatives no longer suggested quacks who had cured a second cousin twice removed with magic potions to be swallowed on the night of a new moon. After the third year, the fits became a story from my past, although they are in my present: the illness permanently ruined my eyesight. From when I was six I had to have glasses that grew thicker every year. Without my glasses the world became a painting of the kind my mother copied at times: dabs of color against other dabs of color adding up to a sense of a lake with a boat or water lilies in a pond.
Sometimes I take my glasses off to see differently from other people. Colors and words swim into each other, meanings change on the page. In the distance, everything becomes a pastel blur. There is a kind of restfulness in not seeing well that the clear-sighted will never know.
Close to sixty years and maybe half as many pairs of glasses have gone by since then. It is 1992. Things around my house have turned squalid enough to make me take my glasses off more often so that the rubbish heap outside my gate turns into a mass of bright colors and the billboard beyond is a hazy blue-and-yellow rectangle that might have been the bungalow which stood there before blind-eyed apartments replaced it.
What has not changed is the anticipation with which I wait for the postman. The other day I was rewarded, a package arrived. A padded airmail envelope, bulky, and the postmark tells me it has been on its way for three weeks, all the way from Vancouver, Canada. I have put it on the chest of drawers. Every day I bring it down, feel its weight, pick up the knife I will use to slit the envelope open, and then I put it back where it was. The package has something to do with my mother, I know, and I hesitate to open it. What if it contains nothing of consequence?
What if it does?
The morning after it came, I woke to the sound of my dogs howling in unison, who knows at what, and I was overtaken at that instant with the single thought that it was imperative for me to make a will. There are things I want people to remember, and these I must write down. Things I want people to forget that I must burn. A few saplings I still need to plant even if I don’t live to see them grow to trees. I need to see that the dogs are provided for, that Ila has enough on which to survive. She is widowed, she lives in the main house with her daughter and grandchild. Her daughter’s husband is in the merchant navy and is gone half the year. She depends on me.
It is irrational, this certainty that my time is over when I am only in my mid-sixties, but I have felt the earth wobbling on its ungainly axis for a few years now. I could put away my thoughts of gloom and doom and open the parcel, but I decide not to. For the moment there it sits, pulsing with the energy every unopened letter in the world has. But why not open it? What, after all, will it contain that I don’t know? Am I deferring pleasure or am I afraid of what I might find?
I might find a photograph or drawing of my mother in it—I might not. There was a time in my life long ago—I was thirteen and had just started smoking—when I thought that if I had a picture of her in front of me, I would press the glowing end of a cigarette into the circles of her eyes, as I did into those rubbery gray ticks I found lurking in my dog’s coat. I would blind her. I would kill the spell cast by her absent presence. Immediately horrified at myself, I would shoot at a bottle with my old airgun or slash a sickle through the long grass at the back of the garden to rid myself of the nausea that came from thinking such thoughts.
From All the Lives We Never Lived. Used with permission of Atria Books. Copyright © 2018 by Anuradha Roy.