I sit in Papa’s old study in the Big House, amid mountains of upturned stools and tables with broken legs and rotting tops. The dust doesn’t bother my nose, not today, and when I rest my forearms on Papa’s old plank and sink lower into the depths of his oak chair I think a whiff of Royal Stag hits my nostrils for just a second, for just long enough to make me grab at it with both hands only to turn them over and find that all they had in them was powder. I bring them close to my nose and shut my eyes, but all I smell is a husky twinge that wriggles its way up my nostrils like a feather and tickles the bone between my eyes.
I sneeze. The dust goes up in a cloud made silvery by the light of the mercury bulb perched on the street lamp outside. If only I had one of father’s paintbrushes, I think, I can add a few strokes of shadowy black to the brilliant silver, coerce these swirling mass of specks into a friendly, familiar shape. But to what end? The figure I draw will last but a second, and like Papa’s Royal Stag it will run away from my groping hands, forever out of reach.
The paint brushes. A three-legged tiger takes form in the cloud above me, and I think of that June Sunday morning forty-five years ago when I stepped into Papa’s studio and asked him what he was doing. I thought then that the paintbrush held magic within it, and if I were to hold it someday and utter the words that Papa uttered, it would guide my hand too on the canvas, twirling and steadying and cajoling, stopping only when the figure had emerged, fully formed. I asked him that morning why the tiger only had three legs.
‘Shall I show you one with two?’ he said, and lifted the bottle of rum to his mouth to take a gulp. When I nodded he took a slate and chalk and drew the outline of a cheetah in full gallop springing straight at me with its claws drawn out in front of its face. I thought the chalk had magic in it too, but that night in the children’s room after Vishwam and Shiv and Sandhya and Prema had gone to bed, when I wrapped myself up in a blanket with a torch and tried to draw on my slate with the same chalk, nothing came out. I did not know the words, I thought.
The tiger dissolves into the screen, and the mercury bulb comes into sharper focus. I slap the plank twice with my hands to build the cloud again, and when the beam of light once again becomes a haze I see a row of five children in masks running from room to room in the house. Vishwam wears the mask of Subhash Chandra Bose, Sandhya wears that of Indira Gandhi; Shiv, at the head of the row, is a baby monkey, and Prema, holding on to my waist with both her hands, wears a mask of a wraith with no nose and a mouth set in a silent, hideous scream. Mine is the face of a black, gnarly monster with two blunt canines sticking out from under his lips.
Every Sunday morning the procession would start from the children’s room and worm its way first to grandmother’s room in the far corner, dark and cool in the shade of the pomegranate tree that stood in the backyard. Grandmother would stop each one of us in turn, kiss the masks on the cheeks and the forehead, and place a ten paisa coin into each of our hands. ‘Ooh, this one’s scary!’ she would say when she came to me, and when she smiled her gums showed, grey and hard. Then she went back to fanning herself with her palm leaf, resting her head on her bony right shoulder so that she could stare out of the window without much effort.
A slap on the buttock traveled from Sandhya to Prema to me to Vishwam to Shiv, and then Shiv turned around with a coo to the next stop, the kitchen. Pochamma giggled and pretended to be surprised every time we arrived, but Mother cursed under her breath. She still gave us a laddoo each, though, and sent us on our way out, into Papa’s study just behind the living room, with its windows open so that the morning sun streamed in and blazed his silver hair as he slouched over his table with one hand – his left – closed around the stem of the bottle of rum.
He waved his head this way and that, as if asking himself where he was, and when he turned and saw us his mouth spread in a slow smile, and behind me I heard Sandhya huff from behind her mask. He patted Shiv on the head, reached into his pocket and produced a bundle of coins which he placed into his small hands. Then he turned away to his drawing, the hand leaving Shiv’s and reaching again for the bottle of black liquid.
The masks have fallen away now, I don’t remember when or where. When I asked mother this morning if there was any chance they survived, she looked at me as though I was speaking a foreign tongue. I will always remember Papa’s hands, though, the hands with which he coaxed his brushes to perform magical acts on paper, the hands with which he clutched his bottles of rum, the hands which earned him the rank of a god among his patients, the hands which emptied coins every Sunday morning into Shiv’s.
I blow onto the plank to strengthen the dwindling cloud of dust, and immediately I hear clinking of coins hitting the granite floor, and I hear Papa’s voice say: ‘Remember, Poshu, leave your fingers outstretched for whatever falls in your hand, and let things slip through to the people below you. On days you wish to close your fist and keep it all to yourself, remember that the hand above you might do the same thing.’ The rotating one-rupee coin morphs into the image of a single-storied, two-roomed building, and the slate board that hangs off a nail by the front door has on it written in white chalk the words: ‘Yashomati Clinic’.
I see the throng of people that came to the clinic everyday. I see the men who fell at Papa’s feet, the women who pressed his hands to their eyes, and the children who kissed him on his cheek. I watch him stagger out to the clinic every morning and march back three hours later, his pockets bulging, a whistle on his lips and a few cuts on his palms, spitting the last bit of jarda out from his mouth into the rose bush that mother had planted alongside the front door.
The day I passed the medical entrance he summoned me to my room. He sat in his easy-chair with his hands entwined over his stomach, with Shyamala curled up and purring under his arm. He told me that he would have killed himself if I’d not cleared the entrance. All around him were paintings – oil on canvas, water colours, pencil drawings – and I could still see the black depression on his index finger as he ran his hand over Shyamala’s mane. I guessed he’d spent the night in a euphoric frenzy, and for the first time in my life I saw the bottle of rum unopened on his table, even though it was already nine in the morning.
A tail wags to the left of the dust cloud, and when I blow in its direction, a figure comes into shape and sharpens its claws on an invisible doormat. The first time the family met Shyamala we were all united in our hatred. ‘Who wants a diseased cat?’ said Sandhya, pointing at the uneven black spots on Shyamala’s coat and her forlorn, sickly gaze. Even Papa took one look at her, grimaced and went off into his room. It was mother who kept feeding her whenever she came by the house and meowed, and by the end of the summer she was part of the family.
In time Shyamala gave birth to kittens of her own, and when we asked her to show them to us she led us to the outhouse next to the dispensary where Papa kept some of the clinic’s old tables and chairs, and with one of her paws she lifted the edge of the gunny sack and exhibited her children. One of the kittens, Wanchy, grew up to be the second Shyamala in the house, and she had children of our own, in the same outhouse by the clinic, under the same gunny sack.
If there was one thread by which all members of our family hanged united, it was the cats. Sandhya had her high-handedness, Prema had her often-lovable-but-sometimes-irritating sentimentality, Vishwam had his neatness and pedantry, Shiv and I were street-thugs, but when it came to the cats, everyone was on the same page. When Wanchy got sick and had to be given antibiotics and multi-vitamins, the five of us took turns nursing her through the night, and when her kittens came out, blind and frantic and pawing at the ground furiously, the five of us built a nest in the outhouse fashioned out of old sofa cushions and divided between us the task of checking on them every morning and night.
From the cloud Shyamala smiles at me, and I hear Sandhya’s voice calling over and over again into my ear from that August evening thirty-four years ago. ‘Did anyone see Shyamala?’ she said, and no one replied. ‘Did anyone see Shyamala?’ she said again. People around the room looked at each other, all thinking the same thought, all afraid to voice it. We waited three days; four days; a week. Shyamala had been away for longer than that before, but somehow we all knew she wasn’t coming back. I went up to my room and punched the sand-bag until my arms felt like they were falling off.
Wanchy’s kittens went away too, one by one. We would look under the gunny sack and find one or the other cat had left, and Wanchy would roam the house looking up at us and wailing, and a few days later one more would disappear, and Wanchy would do her mourning mother routine again. Finally the day came when the gunny sack had become empty, and Sandhya took it out to the front yard and set fire to it. Wanchy stood by her feet, watching, rubbing herself against Sandhya’s shins, waving her tail venomously in the air.
None of us noticed it when Wanchy left. Maybe a month later, someone said that maybe Wanchy had left too, and someone said maybe she has. By then Papa’s clinic had fallen into disarray because he’d cut down his time to an hour an each day. His drawing fell away too, and his hands grew scrawny and branch-like, and all they had time for was for the rum bottle. Vishwam sometimes said in later years that perhaps the cats knew that the family was beginning to break up and that was why they left, because they couldn’t bear to see us go down. I used to think it was rubbish – Vishwam inherited some of Prema’s sentimentality – but now, watching Shyamala smile at me through the silver screen, I wondered too if it could not have been so. The day Wanchy left could just have been the day of Papa’s liver failure.
I don’t remember the day of Papa’s death. I don’t remember his last words. I think he died in his sleep. But I hear the blaring ambulance siren and I smell fresh blood. Vishwam and I tied Prema’s wrists with handkerchiefs and rushed her to the hospital, with Papa’s body still in his room. I turned back from loading Prema into the ambulance for just a second to look at the silhouette of the Big House set against the pale crescent moon. It was the shape of a sickle, and I thought it was going to cut the house in two from top to bottom in one easy swipe.
I gather some dust in my hands and throw it up. I fan the specks to keep them in the air, so that I can hear the words. ‘Who is going to cremate him?’ said somebody. ‘Where did all the money go?’ said someone else. Sandhya and mother sat in the studio with Papa’s body, and I told the people that came that we did not have money. ‘Did you build these houses with golden bricks?’ someone asked. I looked at the walls, painted white for Diwali. On it I seemed to see Papa’s giant hand held facing upward, and coins falling through his fingers, and under it I saw smaller hands grabbing, clawing, groping…
I am the middle child, but I am also the eldest son. An uncle took me aside and handed me some money. ‘Give it back to me whenever you can,’ he said, and when I closed my hands around the soiled notes I could see that my fingers were shut tight together, with not even a paper-thin slit between them.
I see the big house now shrink in size, and I see Prema’s body sprawled on the floor of her apartment in Hyderabad. I recall that she wanted to speak to me the week before she hanged herself but we couldn’t because the trains weren’t running. At her funeral I turned her wrists over and looked for a moment at the old brown lines, and I thought they looked very similar to the new one around her neck. Ever since then, whenever someone asks me how Prema died, I tell them that she fell off a height. She did, after a fashion.
Vishwam likes to say that death has hounded our family all our lives. There was Prema, there was the accident that Vishwam and Shiv had in Hyderabad in which Vishwam became anosmic, and then there was the time when they all left to Hyderabad leaving me alone in Warangal and I – Vishwam says that Papa’s ghost chases us all, and that we all have spent our lives running away from it, some of us just evading it and some of us – like Prema – succumbing to it.
The big house shrinks further on my cloud, and Yashomati Clinic and the outhouse disappear to give rise to a hospital complex. The day Shiv called me and said we must think of dividing the property between us, I thought of those mornings he stood in front of Papa in his red monkey mask with his hands held out. The day he accused me of wanting it all for myself and held me by the collar on the street in front of Yashomati Clinic, I told him that I swore on the life of my son that it wasn’t true. Sandhya, with her arms folded and with a sneer on her face, said: ‘You’re not a woman to swear on your son.’
‘Let’s sell everything,’ Vishwam said, ‘and divide the money equally.’
The big house went on the market first but stayed unsold until all the other houses went. Both the clinic and the house were sold this morning to a group of doctors who will likely raze both buildings to the ground and erect a nursing home. The four of us got our money. Vishwam and Sandhya went back to Hyderabad. Shiv and mother went back to the United States. I came here in search of Papa’s paintbrushes; I came in hope that some of the magic that Papa blew into them may still be intact. I came in search of this oak chair on which he used to lay back and recite Urdu poetry in his slurring, drunken voice.
I see him again in the cloud above my head, and he is shrunken to the bone, like he was in his last days. The five of us are standing around his chair in a circle with our hands outstretched, and Shiv is making the sound of a train engine from underneath his monkey face. Prema’s hand is the hand of a skeleton; her eyes are black holes. Sandhya and Vishwam stand erect and haughty. My shoulders are drawn together, and my hand is shivering. Papa starts at the head of the circle, as always, with Shiv, and he hands us all coins, bright and shining ones. He lets them drop into our palms from between his fingers, and when he comes to me he smiles and asks how the clinic is running.
I hold back my sneezes and allow the air to clear, the street lamp to sharpen in my vision. I get to my feet, fold the oak chair with the plank in it, and carry it to the living room. I look at the front room door and half-expect Shyamala and Wanchy to walk in and rub themselves against my feet. But they won’t. It is as Vishwam said. They left when they knew the house was going to break up. They won’t return today, or ever. I walk out and place the key on the window sill. The cleaners will come; they will find the paintbrushes, perhaps. Let them. Let that bit of Papa’s magic go with the house. I look at the stairs and wonder for a moment if I should go up to my room and lower the punching bag. I decide not to. Let that go too.
I carry the chair along the path to the front gate, and stand by the point where the ambulance stood thirty-three years ago. I see my nineteen-year-old self turn back and look at the top of the Big House. I lean the chair against my thigh and look over my shoulder. There is no moon tonight, but the front of the house is painted silver with the light of the mercury lamp. Only the windows are black, like the black holes in Prema’s mask. Yashomati Clinic (no longer a clinic, but I like to call it that) looks the same, mired in black, the shadows of the leaves from the banyan tree on the street dancing on its white walls.
I turn around and lug the chair out of the gate. I don’t close it behind me. I call for an auto. I don’t haggle, and as we drive off I resist one last look at the big house. I know what I will see. I will see Papa in his oak chair with his hands entwined over his chest, and I will see Shyamala purring under his arms, and I will see the walls of his study strewn with drawings and paintings and water colours, and I will see the dark ridge on his right forefinger.
I know what I will see, and I can’t bear to see it. So I don’t look back.