Her kid refuses to eat, mine eats all the time. We stand on our balconies, both of us spontaneously outdoors at meal-times as if feeding were theatre for the trees and the traffic. Me in the floppy tracksuit I’ve possibly been wearing since Alu was born, my neighbour in her cotton nightie till it’s time for her to head out to temple or shop. Her three-year-old son stands beside her, tightly clutching the bars of the balcony like a prisoner in a film pondering his tragic fate, his gaze fixed on us. When Kalpana advances her daily ragi mush towards his mouth he turns his face away politely as if from something offensive to his delicate sensibilities.
“What’s that?” I ask Kalpana.
“What’s that?” repeats Alu with her hands on her hips, her imitation so perfectly adult that it becomes, unwittingly, a cruel parody.
I point at the banana leaf laid out on a stool. It has a mound of rice on it, a bright splash of sambar, a small vada, some greens, chutney, something that looks like payasam.
“For my grandfather, all his favourite things…” Kalpana says.
She turns her face to the sky and emits a high-pitched two-note call that sounds shockingly avian, then turns to me with an expression suggesting she has a hidden side. This nightie-loving housewife harbours a Mowgli in her heart maybe, some secret, organic knowingness that I have yet to discover.
“Where are the crows?” she asks her son.
I look to Monu to see if this interests him but he remains unmoved. He is a wispy toddler with rich, oily curls of hair and eyes that look always on the verge of astonishing discovery. He could be just about to burst into eloquence but, in fact, does not speak at all. He might make the occasional juvenile sound, pleasure or pain sometimes break out as inarticulate noise, but he does not seem to know, or need, words. This, combined with his resolute indifference to food, qualifies him to be a three-year-old invalid but Kalpana and her husband haven’t sought medical advice. They’ve recently taken him to see a nameless saintly figure associated with the temple in Tirupati who has promised the boy will both speak and eat in good time.
I am about to ask how come granddad’s favourite grub isn’t special, why it’s the ordinary fare Kalpana and her family eat, but I stop myself in time from letting out that irrelevant question. This is yet another of my new propensities, inexplicably brought on by motherhood. It’s like when you’re stoned and keep getting tripped up by some small, suddenly marvellous detail—a perfectly geometrical flower printed on a bedsheet, the resounding bass line in a pop song. I seem to be thinking sideways. Instead of focussing on the grown-up questions, my tired brain keeps straying towards minute nonsense. I try to look interested.
“Could it be a festival today?”
“Yes, the day we feed our ancestors,” says Kalpana. “Mahalaya Amavasya. A special new moon night.”
Then I understand about the crows: of course, I know. I’m not that far gone yet into postnatal confusion. They’re the bearers of the souls of the dead. We peer into the branches of the mango tree which is growing out of the empty plot next door but which seems to belong, in the open-armed welcome of its branches, to both of us. There are no crows camouflaged by the rustle of its long, tapering leaves.
Kalpana calls again and Alu echoes her call through the half-chewed rice in her mouth, which promptly falls out in a clump. She turns to me for more without even a second’s hesitation at the accident. I go inside to refill her bowl, hungry myself, I realise, but in a foggy way, as if my own hunger, as much as my own thoughts, had become unurgent, third person. I come back with warm rice and dal for her, and still no crows. They usually fill this small shared space of tree and balcony with their fat black squawks and squabbles. But today when there’s good, fresh Brahmin food to be had, no crows.
“Give…me…more!” Alu urges. As she snaps up the heaped spoon I proffer, she’s a chicken; she spreads her arms and screeches, intent on deriving amusement even from empty air. A year ago she was flinging her toys over the railing one by one, so toys have long been prohibited, but I still have to wrestle her every afternoon over the other distractions out here—the outdoor tap, the rice paper lampshade, the terracotta animals, with all of which she can wreak determined havoc, not angrily but just as a form of infant expression, a way of making room for herself in the world. She growls at Monu, challenging him to say or do something, but he just stands there calmly observing Alu eat and play and fight. She interests him but not enough to respond in kind. I keep glancing at him in amazement—his serenity, his indifference—while Kalpana watches my daughter, who is the same age as Monu. She often comments with open envy on Alu’s chubby arms and flushed cheeks, the words and sentences that fall out of her mouth fully formed, as if she had stored them from some previous life of linguistic aptitude, not gleaned them all from this one.
As I empty the last of the food into her perpetually open mouth, Alu, who knows how crows are usually shooed away from anything edible, asks, “Why crow must eat?”
“It’s the crow’s birthday,” I say. “Aunty is waiting for crow to come to the party.”
At this Monu gives out a small, cautious giggle and Alu looks at me in delight at the reaction I’ve produced in the boy. She imitates his laugh to see if he’ll laugh again, but he’s retreated back into silence.
I glance at Kalpana who, tight-lipped, is still scanning the sky.
“He has to come all the way from Mysore. First he’ll go to my sister’s place in South Bangalore. Only then he’ll come here.”
Nevertheless, at a sudden flutter in the tree, she lets out that same jungle sound and claps her hands encouragingly.
“No crow,” says Alu disapprovingly, then shouts as both a form of address and identification, “Squirrel!”
The creature, flurried and jerky as squirrels tend to be, stops halfway up the trunk at her command, then scampers with its tail erect into the branches. In the summer, mangoes of a perfectly uniform green smoothness will hang from this tree, as beautifully alien to it as Christmas decorations, and then disappear before their colour mellows, maybe monitored and collected by the children who live in the slum nearby. But the squirrels are always here. The tree is not just ours despite its leaning in that almost endearing way towards us.
“The bandicoots might get it later,” I murmur, thinking of the food.
Even before the sentence is out of my mouth I know I’ve been stupid. Bandicoots are beside the point. What made me think of them? This is about her grandfather, not the lower reaches of the animal world. Yet I’m bothered by that full leaf-plate: will the rice turn and smell, will it mobilise the red ants or, at night, those frightening, swollen creatures on powered feet I sometimes see at night slipping into the stormwater drains in the colony? Whereas I should be reflecting on the dead and the many forms they take in the human imagination. I’m supposed to be drawing on my sociological ideas—for that’s what I was preparing to be before Alu. A scholar of sociology.
“Bandicoots?” Kalpana asks me.
“Sorry. There are just so many around these days.”
Alu doesn’t repeat Kalpana’s repetition. Perhaps she too can hear the hurt and annoyance in her voice. Besides, food done, she is on the floor of the living room immersed in the next thing, which is her picture book about a girl lost in the forest.
“You don’t observe this festival?” Kalpana asks me.
She’s upset with me now but she won’t cut me off. We need each other as we live our exhausting, parallel, matching lives on these facing balconies. I wish I could say I do—admission of me being no better than her or her being as good as me—but all I can come up with is an apologetic, “The crows are sure to come.”
She knows I’m not a believer whereas she is always agog over the festivals and the gods. On Ugadi she plucks leaves off the mango tree and goes out to buy sheaves of neem—the first she festoons her lintel with to welcome good things into the house in the new year, the neem is eaten with jaggery on the morning of the festival. In the evening she will come over to my house with a plate of homemade holige, dripping with ghee. On all three days of Diwali her balcony is pretty with oil lamps and on Ayudha Pooja, the day of obeisance to the tools of one’s trade, she applies the white stripe of vibhuti and red and yellow smears of kumkum and haldi not just on her husband’s PC and car but also on her own pressure cookers and mixer-grinder. All those lifeless means of production become, for a day, touched with divinity, bedecked minor gods of steel and aluminium taking their place in the crazily crowded pantheon of the religion.
“So what about the dead people in your family?” asks Kalpana.
I’ve told her about my grimly atheistic parents. She knows how I came of age feeling neither the need to be avowedly anti-God like them nor deeply devotional like almost everyone else. We’ve even laughed about it—my parents’ absurd antipathy to God. But today Kalpana’s beliefs are being tested: I’ve mentioned bandicoots, insultingly, and granddad isn’t flying out of the sky to eat the food she’s cooked him.
“My dead are dead, Kalpana,” I say. “They don’t come back.” I know this is not good enough for her. I could put them to sleep and she’d resurrect them with her fierce Hindu conviction. One’s saying goodbye to the dead is not confirmation of their departure.
“You don’t celebrate Deepavali even? Or the day of Krishna’s birth?”
I nod, with apparent sadness, in the negative to keep up with the charade. I don’t mind the inquisition because it won’t produce the least smidgen of religious guilt and she knows this, so she can be insistent.
“What about your daughter? She might need some of this.”
“I’ll ask her when she’s a little older. Right now we’ll just let it be about the crows, too complicated to also bring in the dead.”
“If you haven’t had them since childhood, they’re not beliefs,” says Kalpana, sounding more sociological than me. I’m meant to be working on a PhD on the lives of local factory workers, men and women who come from either very nearby—the villages adjoining Bangalore, or thousands of kilometres away, the blurred, desperate edges of the country—in order to bottle soft drinks, stitch garments, package electronics.
I don’t know when I can return to my respondents but in the meanwhile the project itself—in the snatches of magically still late morning time, when Alu is at school and I am before my computer, trying to hit on the pattern in the stories of cheap labour I have gathered—seems both unyielding and beside the point. What new thing can I establish by recording that Mithun Bordoloi, from Sibsagar district in Assam, inspected the seals of jam, ketchup and pickle bottles on the assembly line for eight years, quit out of boredom and, in the hope of earning more elsewhere, annoyed his supervisor only because he wanted out, and now, three years later, is a hospital orderly on an equally lowly income and has still not been paid out his leaving benefits by the factory, though he calls that unyielding supervisor every day and sometimes grows downright weepy pleading with him. Or that N Madhu from Mandya district, who did buttons and zippers for an international clothing company, also for eight years, hanged herself from a noose made out of the very string she used in her job because she had never known anything in the factory but buttons and zippers and she wanted more. What I earn is not even half enough for the family, she’d told me. I see now that I’d started to grow too interested in them as people to generalise about them as specimens. Besides, Karl Marx already provided us with the conclusion—work in an industrial, capitalist society is alienating.
Kalpana will not leave me to my strangeness today. “I know your parents didn’t care but what about their parents?”
I quickly make up a tale. “They were birthday grandparents. Always called on my birthday and something was sure to turn up in the post but I never spent much time with them. They passed away so long ago I grew up knowing them as them dead. What about yours? Was this grandfather…” I incline my head at the sky and Kalpana looks up in hope again, “…someone you were close to.”
“Oh verrry,” she says, and tells me how disbelieving she was when one day just a couple of years ago he took off to stay in an ashram in Tamil Nadu.
“His soul must be very much there somewhere—on the Tiruvannamalai hill. He was so happy there. But today he’s expected here, for Mahalaya Amavasya. It’s more important than even the ceremony performed on the thirteenth day after a person’s death. You could skip that but you can’t skip this,” she says, then considers the still full bowl in her hand and her silent martyr of a son. We smile thinly at each other because there’s nothing more to say, our afternoon interlude is done.
I go back inside and find my daughter at my desk. She has poured herself a glass of juice from the fridge and spilt it on The Girl in the Forest, on the papers on my desk, on the laptop keyboard, on the floor. I stare at her, my throat constricting painfully, as she wipes her book on the already-grubby front of her pinafore.
“Alu,” I whisper.
She looks up at me. I cannot go to her, I have to lock my fingers behind my back to stop from hurting her or from bawling.
“What did you do, Alu?”
“Juice drop,” she says.
“What did you do?”
“Juice drop,” she shouts as if addressing a moron.
“I’ve told you the story of why this is not for Alu. You can grab and destroy everything in the house but not this. This is mine. Papa has office, Aunty Kalpana has her gods, Alu has her toys and books, and I have this little, little corner.”
“I know,” she says but isn’t sorry. She’s a three-year-old blob of ego but for a moment I wonder if she’s special in her infant selfishness. Are all kids so unfeeling?
“Go,” I say.
She slides down from the chair, and her bare feet land in a puddle of juice. “All gone,” I say, still at the door unable to stir, still wanting to make her cry or, failing that, cry myself. “It was already mostly gone and now you’ve taken care of the rest. Do you understand? You’ve wiped out your Ma.”
She points to a picture on the leaking page. “Girl found house,” she explains.
I hand her the empty glass, push her out of the room and lock the door. I feel like throwing everything—laptop, papers, the squelchy rug under the table—over the balcony. I feel like sleeping for a year; I feel like being reborn as a creature from a species that doesn’t produce children. I wet a towel at the bathroom sink and start cleaning. It takes time and I take my time. I shake out orange drops from the keyboard. I wipe a sticky book and set it to dry before the room cooler. The papers I scrunch and find a plastic bag to stuff into, feeling that I am discarding Mithun and Madhu’s fate as well.
I’m annoyed at Kalpana too, fed up of her endlessly fussy religiosity. We never discuss the human condition, only—apart from our domestic dailyness—this constant commerce with the gods. In our vicinity—this tree-lined grid of small, new apartment buildings, older double-storeyed bungalows, the last of the empty plots, two temples, a couple of grocery shops—the human condition takes the form of the slum on the fringes from which men and women come to work on the construction sites, couples whose infants spend their days rocking in improvised swings of old saris strung on the beams of the houses being raised or, if they’re a little older, running wild—heaving around sacks with refuse they might be able to sell some bits of, playing cricket with planks of discarded wood, stealing a little.
I’m struck by that familiar freeze I know many like me feel—apathy, shame and disinterest in equal parts—when I see these children hanging out in the lanes. I might chat with them in passing, buy them cupcakes from a bakery, turn my face away when they take down a neighbour’s lovely display of frangipani, but I cannot do anything for them really. The disaster they stand for is bigger than them and bigger than me, and all I have to offer are a few coins—metaphorical and real—of sympathy. Those coins are not to alleviate. They are a way of saying: let’s definitely not look this problem in the eye.
Kalpana takes another view. She will shout them away from the mango tree, she’ll shout them away from everything. Just their being around is a problem. They can’t be up to any good. Poverty is not an embarrassment to her; it is, apparently, a failing on the part of the poor.
I lie down and let my exhaustion take over. I’m too tired to boil another portion of rice for my lunch. Instead I think of the dozens of housewives in the colony, keeping the reinforced-concrete foundation of the middle-class nation in place. The husbands go to work with their multi-tier lunch boxes of home-cooked food snug in zippered cases, entrusting the job of sustaining not just family values but the family as a value to their wives. And for the women, fending off vagrants is as crucial to the role as shopping for the lushest plantain leaves on Ganesh Chathurthi. I imagine interviewing Kalpana and her friends and then going further afield, taking in the whole neighbourhood, fanning out into all of North Bangalore, talking to every single stay-at-home wife whose husband’s decent-salaried job can pay for insurance and mortgage, whose children go to English-language schools, and finding that they are all in secret concurrence with each other—every religious ritual must be flintily adhered to, the children properly socialised, and the irreligious neighbours challenged. It starts to seem like a tremendous discovery—perhaps the very institution of modern Hinduism is sustained by these women who, if they went to work instead, would be too preoccupied by flowcharts and balance sheets to imagine Vishnu and Shiva as needing their constant attention. I fall asleep holding fast to the fragile thread of this new idea.
When I wake I go into the kitchen to make myself some tea. Alu is sprawled on the carpet, her face held up at a reverential angle to Chhota Bheem flexing his cartoon muscles on TV. Nothing new there. I sit on the sofa with my cup and the newspaper. I answer a text message from my husband. I go onto the balcony to hang the damp towels. The food Kalpana put out is still there, caking in the late afternoon sun. I realise that the crows could land up now, encouraged by our temporary abandonment of the balconies.
“Alu,” I call out. “Quieter.” But she doesn’t lower the volume so I have to go across and do it myself.
I haphazardly pour flour into a bowl, splash water into it, and start pummelling the dough. I could hardly say to Kalpana—I want to study you, you interest me as a type. I must stock up my questions, tell her it’s a survey, something I’m doing for the university where I’m a student. A research project, not just my own fantasy about her contribution to social cohesion.
The light is fading by the time I’m done with the dough and Alu hasn’t stirred from Cartoon Network. I put some milk on the stove.
“Come on,” I say to her.
I mix sugar into the milk and take it out to the balcony. She gets up and follows me.
“What happened?” I ask her. “Was Chhota Bheem bad today? But he’s always good.”
She doesn’t look at me, turning her face away as she slowly slurps from the mug in my hand.
“Little miss chippie?”
Nothing at all. Monu appears, his mother holding his cup of milk. He is sweaty and excited from his park visit but this, of course, has not changed his attitude to eating and drinking.
“Take a sip, magu…drink, kanna.” Kalpana starts by loving him but very quickly impatience starts to burn her up.
“Yow,” says Monu or something to that effect. He’s calling out to Alu. He’s surprised to see her meditative. She looks stony-eyed into the distance.
“Alu is not talking anymore,” I say.
“Alu not talking? That means the sun will rise in the west and fishes live on land.”
“You heard that, Alu? From tomorrow the world’s going to be upside down.”
Alu remains unimpressed. Monu lowers his head in her direction and barks softly like a sad puppy.
“God will be happy because Alu is quiet,” says Kalpana. “Finally he can hear all the other people’s voices.”
Why must she drag God into everything? I glare at her.
“Encourage her,” I say. “Don’t make her feel worse.”
“What did you tell her to shut her up?”
“She’s naughty, I know. But it’s not her fault,” says Kalpana.
I know there’s some criticism of me coming, and it does.
“Maybe you have to show her—the right and the wrong.”
She has brought this up before, my negligence of my child’s moral education.
I look at my grumpy toddler scarfing down milk from her big Ice Princess mug, and then at Monu and his wide-eyed animal dumbness, and a brief wave of panic passes over me. What if I really have failed? What if the tired love I give this child, the feeding and clothing, the bedtime story and the morning hug, are just not enough and she needs, alongside, a worldview?
“She knows the difference very well,” I tell Kalpana. “That’s why she’s sore because she knows she crossed a line.”
But she’s busy with her boy, twisting his chin towards herself and forcing milk down his throat.
I have two pissed-off people on my hands now. That leaves Monu so I try chatting with him.
“Little boy, tell me what you did in the park today?”
Monu ignores me, lost in the dream he’s always dreaming. Then he slowly lifts a finger to point, opens his mouth and lets out the first sentence I have ever heard him speak.
“Is a crow.”
We’re all stunned. The crow plants itself at the edge of the banana leaf, like a guest at a table, and pecks at the food. It eats a bit of the rice, some of the greens, and even the sambar. Unusually, no other crows come swooping down, so our crow can eat leisurely, thinking its black crow thoughts. When it’s done, it lifts the vada in its pointed beak, flaps its wings a few times in thanks, and takes off.
I find myself clapping, so unexpectedly glad.
“Is a crow,” repeats Monu, following its flight to the roof.
Kalpana is on her knees, planting ecstatic kisses all over her son’s face.
And then Alu can’t hold out any longer. “Is a croooow,” she squeals. “There…is…a crow.”
She takes the mug out of my hands and drains the last of the milk, then sets it down carefully on a corner of the balcony. “Alu can drink,” she explains calmly.
My daughter is saying she doesn’t need me to do this for her anymore. Despite the mess she made with the orange juice, she is confident she can feed herself. I tell her she’s right. We no longer have to hang out on the balcony four times a day and keep company with Monu. She is going to be sitting at a table now, eating and conversing like a small adult, not flapping about like a chicken.
Kalpana still has her arms around her son’s neck, her face squashed against his. She is saying she knew the swami she spent her money on in Tirupati was right about Monu—she always had “fullest faith” in the predictive abilities of this seer.
“Monu can talk?” I ask just to make sure he really can now. He smiles with something like irony and says, after Alu, “Monu can drink.” Kalpana and I grin at each other. I look up at the crow, perched on the parapet and enjoying his vada.
But what is above him gives me a start. It is a reminder of something else, note to a different self—the thin new moon, the moon of dead souls, pale as a sliver of the skin in my daughter’s just emptied mug of evening milk.
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.