The room still smells of her. Not as she did when she was dying, an overripe smell that clung to everything that had touched her, sheets, saris, hands. She had been in the nursing home for only ten days but a bedsore grew like an angry red welt on her back. Her neck was a big hump, and she lay in bed like a moody camel that would snap or bite at unpredictable intervals. The goitred lump, the familiar swelling I had seen on her neck all my life, that I had stroked and teasingly pinched as a child, was now a cancer that spread like a fire down the old body, licking clean everything in its way.
The room now smells like a pressed, faded rose. A dry, elusive smell. Burnt, a candle put out. We were not exactly roommates, but we shared two rooms, one corner of the old ancestral house, all my twenty-year-old life.
She was Rukmini, my great-grandmother. She was ninety when she died last month, outliving by ten years her only son and daughter-in-law. I don’t know how she felt then, but later she seemed to find something slightly hilarious about it all. That she, an ignorant village-bred woman, who signed the papers my father brought her with a thumb print, should survive; while they, city-bred, ambitious, should collapse of weak hearts and arthritic knees at the first sign of old age.
Her sense of humour was always quaint. It could also be embarrassing. She would sit in her corner, her round plump face reddening, giggling like a little girl. I knew better than ask her why, I was a teenager by then. But some uninitiated friend would be unable to resist, and would go up to my great-grandmother and ask her why she was laughing. This, I knew, would send her into uncontrollable peals. The tears would flow down her cheeks, and finally, catching her breath, still weak with laughter, she would confess. She could fart exactly like a train whistling its way out of the station, and it gave her as much joy as a child would get when she saw, or heard, a train. So perhaps it is not all that surprising that she could be flippant about her only child’s death, especially since ten years had passed.
“Yes, Ratna, you study hard and become a big doctor madam,” she would chuckle when I kept the lights on all night and paced up and down the room, reading to myself.
“The last time I saw a doctor, I was thirty years old. Your grandfather was in hospital for three months. He would faint every time he saw his own blood.”
And, as if that summed up the progress made between two generations, she would pull her blanket over her head and begin snoring almost immediately.
I have two rooms, the entire downstairs, to myself now since my great-grandmother died. I begin my course at medical college next month and I am afraid to be here alone at night.
I have to live up to the gold medal I won last year. I keep late hours, reading my anatomy textbook before the course begins. The body is a solid, reliable thing. It is a wonderful, resilient machine. I hold on to the thick, hardbound book and flip through the new smelling page, greedily. I stop every time I find an illustration and look at it closely. It reduces us to pink, blue and white colour-coded, labelled parts. Muscles, veins, tendons. Everything has a name. Everything is linked, one with the other, all parts of a functioning whole.
It is poor consolation for the nights I have spent in her warm bed, surrounded by that safe, familiar, musty smell. She was cheerful and never sick. But she was also undeniably old, and so it was no great surprise to us when she suddenly took to lying in bed all day a few weeks before her ninetieth birthday.
She had been lying in bed for close to two months, ignoring concern, advice, scolding, and then she suddenly gave up. She agreed to see a doctor.
The young doctor came out of her room, his face puzzled and angry. My father begged him to sit down and drink a cup of hot coffee.
“She will need all kinds of tests”, he announced. “How long has she had that lump on her neck? Have you had it checked?”
My father shifted uneasily in his cane chair. He is a cadaverous looking man, prone to nervousness and sweating. He keeps a big jar of antacids on his office desk. He has a nine-to-five accountant’s job in a government owned company, the kind that never fires its employees.
My father pulled out the small towel he uses in place of a handkerchief. Wiping his forehead, he mumbled, “You know how these old women are. Impossible to argue with them.”
“The neck,” the doctor said, more gently. I could see he pitied my father.
“I think it was examined once, long ago. My father was alive then. There was supposed to have been an operation, I think. But you know what they thought in those days. An operation meant an unnatural death. All the relatives came over to scare her, advise her with horror stories. So she said no. You know how it is. And she was already a widow then, my father was the head of the household. How could he, a fourteen-year old, take the responsibility?”
“Well,” said the doctor. He shrugged his shoulders. “Let me know when you want to admit her in my nursing home. But I suppose it’s best to let her die at home.”
When the doctor left, we looked at each other, the three of us, like shifty accomplices. My mother, practical as always, broke the silence and said, “Let’s not tell her anything. Why worry her? And then we’ll have all kinds of difficult old aunts and cousins visiting, it will be such a nuisance. How will Ratna study in the middle of all that chaos?”
But when I went to our room that night, my great-grandmother had a sly look on her face. “Come here, Ratna,” she said. “Come here, my darling little gem.”
I went, my heart quaking at the thought of telling her.
She held my hand and kissed each finger, her half-closed eyes almost flirtatious. “Tell me something, Ratna,” she began in a wheedling voice.
“I don’t know, I don’t know anything about it,” I said quickly.
“Of course you do.” She was surprised, a little annoyed.
“Those small cakes you got from the Christian shop that day. Do they have eggs in them?” “Do they?” She persisted. Will you,’ and her eyes narrowed with cunning, ‘will you get one for me?’
So we began a strange partnership, my great-grandmother and I.
I smuggled cakes and ice cream, biscuits and samosas, made by non-Brahmin hands, into a vegetarian invalid’s room. To the deathbed of a Brahmin widow who had never eaten anything but pure, home-cooked food for almost a century.
She would grab it from my hand, late at night after my parents had gone to sleep. She would hold the pastry in her fingers, turn it round and round, as if on the verge of an earthshaking discovery.
“And does it really have an egg in it?” she would ask again, as if she needed the password for her to bite into it with her gums.
“Yes, yes,” I would say, a little tired of midnight feasts by then. The pastries were a cheap yellow colour, topped by white frosting with hard grey pearls.
“Lots and lots of eggs,” I would say, wanting her to hurry up and put it in her mouth. “And the bakery is owned by a Christian. I think he hires Muslim cooks too.”
“Ooooh,” she would moan. Her little pink tongue darted out and licked the frosting. Her toothless mouth worked its way steadily, munching, making happy sucking noises. Our secret was safe for about a week. Then she became bold. She was bored with the cakes, she said. They gave her heartburn. She became a little more adventurous every day. Her cravings were various and unpredictable. Laughable and always urgent.
“I’m thirsty,” she moaned, when my mother asked her if she wanted anything. “No, no, I don’t want water, I don’t want juice.” She stopped the moaning and looked at my mother’s patient, exasperated face. “I’ll tell you what I want,” she whined. “Get me a glass of that brown drink Ratna bought in the bottle. The kind that bubbles and makes a popping sound when you open the bottle. The one with the tizzy noise when you pour it out.”
“A Coca-Cola?” said my mother, shocked. “Don’t be silly, it will make you sick.”
“I don’t care what it is called,” my great-grandmother said and started moaning again. “I want it”
So she got it and my mother poured out a small glassful, tight-lipped, and gave it to her without a word. She was always a dutiful grand-daughter-in-law.
“Ah,” sighed my great-grandmother, propped up against her pillows, the steel tumbler lifted high over her lips. The lump on her neck moved in little gurgles as she drank. Then she burped a loud, contented burp and asked, as if she had just thought of it, “Do you think there is something in it? You know, alcohol?”
A month later, we had got used to her new, unexpected, inappropriate demands. She had tasted, by now, lemon tarts, garlic, three types of aerated drinks, fruit cake laced with brandy, bhel-puri from the fly-infested bazaar nearby.
“There’s going to be trouble,” my mother kept muttering under her breath. “She’s losing her mind, she is going to be a lot of trouble.”
And she was right, of course. My great-grandmother could no longer swallow very well. She would pour the coke into her mouth and half of it would trickle out of her nostrils, thick, brown, nauseating.
“It burns, it burns”, she would yell then, but she pursed her lips tightly together when my mother spooned a thin gruel into her mouth. “No, no,” she screamed deliriously. “Get me something from the bazaar. Raw onions. Fried bread. Chickens and goats.”
Then we knew she was lost to us. She was dying.
She was in the nursing home for ten whole days. My mother and I took turns sitting by her, sleeping on the floor by the hospital cot.
She lay there quietly, the pendulous neck almost as big as her face. But she would not let the nurses near her bed. She would squirm and wriggle like a big fish that refused to be caught. The sheets smelled, and the young doctor shook his head. “Not much to be done now,” he said. “The cancer has left nothing intact.”
The day she died, she kept searching the room with her eyes. Her arms were held down by the tubes and needles, cross-cross, in, out. The glucose dripped into her veins but her nose still ran, the clear, thin liquid trickling down like dribble on to her chin. Her hands clenched and unclenched with the effort and she whispered, like a miracle, “Ratna.”
My mother and I rushed to her bedside. Tears streaming down her face, my mother bent her head before her and pleaded, “Give me your blessings, Pati. Bless me before you go.”
My great-grandmother looked at her for a minute, her lips working furiously, noiselessly. For the first time in my life I saw a fine veil of perspiration on her face. The muscles on her face twitched in mad, frenzied jerks. Then she pulled one arm free of the tubes, in a sudden, crazy spurt of strength, and the IV pole crashed to the floor.
“Bring me a red sari,” she screamed. “A red one with a big wide border of gold. And,” her voice cracked, “bring me peanuts with chilli powder from the corner shop. Onion and green chilli bondas deep fried in oil.”
Then the voice gurgled and gurgled, her face and neck swayed, rocked like a boat lost in a stormy sea. She retched, and as the vomit flew out of her mouth, her nose, thick like the milkshakes she had drunk, brown like the alcoholic coke, her head slumped forward, her rounded chin buried in the cancerous neck.
When we brought the body home – I am not yet a doctor and already I can call her that – I helped my mother to wipe her clean with a wet, soft cloth. We wiped away the smells, the smell of the hospital bed, the smell of an old woman’s juices drying. Her skin was dry and papery. The stubble on her head – she had refused to shave her head once she got sick – had grown, like the soft, white bristles of a hairbrush.
She had had only one child though she had lived so long. But the skin on her stomach was like crumpled, frayed velvet, the creases running to and fro in fine, silvery rivulets.
“Bring her sari”, my mother whispered, as if my great-grandmother could still hear her.
I looked at the stiff cold body that I was seeing naked for the first time. She was asleep at last, quiet at last. I had learnt, in the last month or two, to expect the unexpected from her. I waited, in case she changed her mind and sat up, remembering one more taboo food to be tasted.
“Bring me your eyebrow tweezers,” I heard her say.
“Bring me that hair-removing cream. I have a moustache and I don’t want to be an ugly old woman.”
But she lay still, the wads of cotton in her nostrils and ears shutting us out. Shutting out her belated ardour.
I ran to my cupboard and brought her the brightest, reddest sari I could find: last year’s Divali sari, my first silk. I unfolded it, ignoring my mother’s eyes which were turning aghast. I covered her naked body lovingly. The red silk glittered like her childish laughter.
“Have you gone mad?” my mother whispered furiously.
“She was a sick old woman, she didn’t know what she was saying.” She rolled up the sari and flung it aside, as if it had been polluted. She wiped the body again to free it from foolish, trivial desires.
They burnt her in a pale brown sari, her widow’s weeds. The prayer beads I had never seen her touch encircled the bulging, obscene neck.
I am still a novice at anatomy. I hover just over the body, I am just beneath the skin. I have yet to look at the insides, the entrails of memories she told me nothing about, the pain congealing into a cancer.
She has left me behind with nothing but a smell, a legacy that grows fainter every day. I hunt the dirtiest bakeries and tea stalls I can find every evening. I search for her, my sweet great-grandmother, in plate after plate of stale confections, in needle sharp green chillies deep-fried in rancid oil. I plot her revenge for her, I give myself diarrhoea for a week.
Then I open all the windows and her cupboard and air the rooms. I tear her dirty grey saris to shreds. I line the shelves of her empty cupboard with my thick, newly bought, glossy jacketed texts, one next to the other. They stand straight and solid, row after row of armed soldiers. They fill up the small cupboard in minutes.
GITHA HARIHARAN. Born in India, continued her studies in the US and worked with public television there. Returning to India in 1979, she has worked in Bombay, Madras and New Delhi, initially as an editor in a publishing house, and later as a free lance writer. Her The Thousand Faces of Night won the Commonwealth Prize for the best first novel. Other writings include The Ghosts of Vasu Master and The Art of Dying, a collection of short-stories. She has also edited A Southern Harvest, a volume of stories in English translation from four major South Indian Languages.