Red Coral

Red Coral by Sangeetha Bhaskaran

This story touches rather difficult topics – death, poverty & borderline dysfunctional family. However, the brilliant writing of Sangeetha Bhaskaran makes it easy to read and even easier to visualize. The story, though nestled in tragedy, is actually one of freedom. And if you are a fan of real women empowerment, you would definitely like the climax.

I watch the milk in the aluminium pot froth into a tea-specked mountain, and turn off the flame. Then I pour it through a mucky strainer with a plastic orange handle. Mother never threw a thing. Looking around I see everything as it was the last time I was home, two years ago; the stained cutting board with juices from vegetables and meat etched deeply into its grooves, the dented steel tumblers that have lost their shape, the plastic dish-rack whose original colour is long forgotten beneath hardened grime. Now that she’s gone, I can throw all these things and not worry about her yelling and insisting that there is still more life left in them.

Father is sitting on the worn-out cot, with its frayed lattice coir base, ready to give way any day. He hasn’t changed much either. He is smoking a beedi slowly. His dark leathery skin hangs, making him look like a large bag that is only half packed. Without glancing up at me, he reaches out mechanically and takes the glass from my hand. Our fingers graze lightly, and I watch his bloodshot eyes for a reaction or acknowledgement, feeling pathetic for wanting what will never come.

Mother died. I got the call last night. I can’t seem to figure out what’s worse, finding out about my mother’s death from a neighbour or not knowing the cause. The coroner at the government hospital told Father that he would have to pay a thousand rupees to do an autopsy, so he concluded that she collapsed from a heart attack.

I told the woman I work for that I had to go back home for my mother’s funeral. Her face crinkled with concern as she asked about what happened while trying to figure out how she would manage the cooking, cleaning and her child, without me around. I promised I’d return in a few days. I asked her for an advance, but she said her husband would not like it. “You must be careful with money Mala. Your family will take everything from you and leave you with nothing,” she told me in a manner she’s fond of employing in conversations with me, like a maternal protector who always knows better.

I took a bus from the city within an hour of hearing the news. It was full but I managed to find space in the last row. Squashed between an old woman whose head kept swinging onto my shoulder as she slept, and a middle-aged man whose thigh was fully pressed, with smug satisfaction, against mine, I sat stiffly. The windows were open, warm air and dust blowing as we bounced along on the badly patched highway roads. My body was too tight and tired to let my mind wander into the recesses of grief. I was going to a home that would mean little without her in it.

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My father is now drinking his tea, lost in a reverie. What is he thinking? Is it about the woman who performed this ritual every day for forty years, handing him the piping hot glass just after he brushed his teeth, nudging him to drink it quickly before it turned cold? He was once a paddy farmer. Working in the blistering sun does something to men; it hardens their skin and senses. He only spoke to me when he had to and it was my brother who received the privilege of being considered. All those years of us cooped in that same small home and still he remained my mother’s husband. Now, he does nothing all day. A government scheme in which he got enrolled provides a monthly deposit into his account, enough for his daily arrack rations. Mother had managed most of the household expenses with the money I sent.

I wonder about my brother Bhikhu now for the first time since I got here. Although I am certain that her death will have little effect on his daily rituals of vagabonding, I want to see him.

“Pa, I’ll go and get the things we need for the funeral. You wait for anyone who comes.

He hears me but blinks like he didn’t. Not much changes with time.

“Tomorrow I have to go back, so it’s best we do everything quickly.”

Was that my voice? Did I just say those words? Look at me being swift and efficient about managing my mother’s death. He looks at me and starts to say something, but stops.

After checking my purse and counting the contents I’d managed to scrape together despite my hurried departure, I step out to the market to buy a few items needed for the funeral. Walking through the muddy gullies, I see the old and the new; the purple and pistachio green walls that people in my village still seem to love, piles of dried cattle-feed waiting to be sold, the only shop that once sold cola that is now eclipsed by bigger stores that sell on credit, the betel-stained teeth of the fisherwoman whose wrinkled flesh is rolling out of her wide hips. My village has grown, and I can see a clear confusion that stems from being forced to progress.

People stop me on the way. Some with condolences, some with the stares I’ve gotten so accustomed to that they melt into air like smoke.

I visit the flower stalls to pick up jasmine and tulsi. I search for freshly strung ones that are fragrant enough for Mother, but all the garlands seem so pale and withered. A woman who recognises me calls out from across the street, motioning me to her cart. She then takes out a radiant lot from a bag behind her and hands them to me. I take out my purse, but she refuses to let me pay for them, and strokes my face almost kindly. It is a wonder that in a span of less than twelve hours she has heard the news and mustered this sympathy. She knows more than me. I can tell from her eyes, which have a hint of haughtiness from knowing what has transpired in my family in the years I haven’t been home.

I thank her and proceed to the provisions store for the rest of the items – sandalwood paste, camphor, rice, milk, ghee. I imagine my mother watching me with her mouth agape as I collect the canister of ghee, wishing I would not waste such extravagance on her.

As I get back home, I feel an ominous tingle in my spine. Bhikhu is back. He’s towering over Father, asking him something loudly. Even from behind, you can tell that something is not quite right about him.

When Bhikhu was thirteen, he brought a purebred dog home. She had a smooth brown coat and eyes that smiled. No one asked him where he found her. Rani became my companion.  I saved the best parts of my meals for her. One day he brought another mongrel and let it loose in our narrow, dusty backyard. The dog mounted himself onto a shocked Rani. Two months later the first litter came along, a set of mixed breeds who looked distinctive from the average Indian dog. Within a week, Bhikhu took the suckling pups in a box and disappeared, returning hours later with a fat smile. It went on and on, litters of puppies raining every few months. With the constant breeding and without proper meals, Rani lost all her vibrancy. She sat glumly in our backyard, too tired to wag her tail, dying slowly every day till she escaped through the backyard gate in the night.

He hears my anklets clinking and turns. I see his face and am shocked. The once handsome features that could lure girls to dark corners of the sugarcane fields are smudged into a grotesque mass. His nose is broken and there are gashes on his forehead. An indigo halo radiates around his left eye. Bhikhu is a popular fighter, ever ready to challenge someone for money, power or on a whim.

“Hello stranger…Welcome. Came to see what she left for you, eh?” he asks with a malicious smile.

I ignore his taunt and walk past him, but he grabs my wrist and tightens his grip, waiting for me to yelp like I did when we were children. My fingers turn blue and I return his menacing stare with blank detachment. I have learnt that the only way to make it as a woman in this world is to be indifferent. He feigns laughter and releases my hand. Something in the way Bhikhu is looking at me is worrying. He is trying to soften his expression, a forced effort. My father is staring insistently at a spot on the floor.

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“So, tell me, how is work and your life in the city?” Bhikhu makes me sit down with a forceful push on my shoulder.

“It’s fine.”

“Are you still with the same family? What do you do for them?” he takes a beedi from my father’s pocket and lights it.

“I cook and clean.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t they have a child?” He is inching closer to me and I can see that a lot of his teeth are rotting. This makes me happy.

“Yes. I take care of her.”

Bhikhu laughs and thumps his hand on my father’s shoulders. He is usually good at getting others to join him, building little armies to further his cause of emotional derision. But today father ignores him.

“How will they manage without you now?”

I know what he is saying, not asking, with that question. On the bus ride back, I thought about the weight of my duty, the weight placed on me by mother’s departure. After all, two men need a woman to take care of them. He is watching me shrewdly, knowing well that I am not ready for a fight now.

Father turns to me and for the first time in two years I hear his voice. A thin and feeble strand of a sentence escapes his cracked lips.

“We need you, Mala.”

I cannot look at him as he says these words. I am 24 years old and don’t know how to feel a man’s love. When I was six and had asked for a doll, he told me it was a waste of money and bought Bhikhu a cricket bat instead. He pulled me out of school knowing how much I loved it, because he couldn’t stand the thought of me learning to think. At thirteen, just after I’d attained puberty, I heard him get drunk and joke with his friends about how they could try their luck with me if they wanted to, because no young boy would find me worth fucking.

And now here he was. Asking me to stay. I want to pull out a book from my head and hurl the pages at him and say – look at this, all the things you never said and never did for me. How can you be this shameless pig now? I want to remind him of the money I sent every month from working hard. I want to tell him that I did find men to fuck in the city, who loved my face and body, even if it was only for a few warm hours in a dingy room at a lodge.

But there is the part of my mother in me that cares more than she ought to, which forgives the pain easily enough because the yearning to belong is much stronger than any form of humiliation and neglect. My father’s loose skin and cracked hands fill me with despair, and I am confused.

My resolve to stay for only a day began dissolving when I stepped inside our home and felt the surge of memories. I think about the house in the city where I am just a maid; the corner of the marble floor that is assigned to me to sleep on, the wife who generously hands leftovers to me and watches me suspiciously when her husband is around, the child who showers me with a half-love, as she is constantly reminded of what exactly I am. There it is – I am a what, not a who, earning a salary for doing what I do for them. I have no home except within these four walls with these two ungrateful men.

I am not ready yet, to make this decision. I must focus on the funeral.

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People will start arriving soon and I need to get Mother ready. Her body has been lying on the floor in the only room in our home, a mound wrapped in an old bedsheet. The faded flowers stare at me, begging to be opened. With a deep breath I clasp my fingers around the edges of the sheet and lift it slowly. There she is, her stoic face with eyes that have been shut for her. It’s been twelve hours. I touch her once warm cheeks that are now icy; the ones she used to rub against mine every night as she held me close, and as they grazed each other we’d be washed with the contentment of our love being transmitted through skin. Her arms are stretched taut by rigor mortis. I take her hand and place it between my palms, rubbing it vigorously, attempting to take in as much of her as I can before her body is set ablaze and reduced to ashes.

It is a strange thing I’m feeling, an incomplete mourning, tainted with a secret joy for her release. She is finally gone from this world, away from a life submerged in poverty, away from an existence that drowned her own needs to save her family’s, away from her husband and children. Money, money, money. Printed paper that decided our fates. I know I grew up wondering about the magic it held, commanding her to toil from dusk to dawn as she walked to the bank in the nearest town to work as a cleaner. Her hands swept, mopped and cleaned floors and stairs for money that disappeared so swiftly.

I need to wash and change her. Yes, she would want that. To be truly sanitised for the place she’s going to. I dig through the rusted trunk which houses all her belongings and find the first sari I’d bought her after I started working; a dark bottle-green crepe silk one with a delicate bronze border, very much unlike the flowery polyester ones she usually draped herself in. There is a box with all her jewellery; multi-coloured plastic bangles, a few copper nose pins, the faux pearls she’d don for special occasions, the red coral earrings. I take one piece of the red coral pair and look at it closely for the first time.

A very long time ago, an astrologer visited our village. Mother was superstitious and she gathered her little gunny purse and ran to meet him, taking me along with her. I don’t know how old I was, but I remember watching the way she lit up as the old man held her hardened hand and ran his fingers along the weary lines and made wise predictions, vague enough to convince her of his powers. Red coral, he told her, is what would bring her family prosperity. For weeks after that day she pondered ways to obtain this stone, assured that it would be our saviour. One Sunday afternoon she took me to a pawn shop where she handed over her gold chain and gleefully took a pair of red coral earrings from a bearded man who insisted that we were cheating him – but it was okay, he would bear the loss. That night Bhikhu held me down and father beat her so hard I was sure she would die. With every slap and kick, he enjoyed repeating how stupid she was for selling her wedding chain. It was the same night she held me in her bruised arms and whispered through soft sobs, “You have to leave this place one day Mala. It doesn’t matter what you do, but just go and never come back.”

I gather the green sari, a few bangles and the pearls. From the kitchen, I get a bowl of water and a towel. Slowly I remove her clothes and begin to wipe her. With each stroke, I feel a lump forming in my chest. I wish the tears would just come and free me, but they remain elusive.

Growing up I’d seen glimpses of my mother’s nakedness; her sunken breasts as she changed her blouse before me, her peeking thighs as Father ploughed her in the shadows of the night, her buttocks when she’d ask me to massage balm into her lower back. This is the first time I’ve seen the sum of it all and I feel a creeping tenderness within.

After wiping and patting her with the talcum powder she never went anywhere without, I slip her arms through the blouse, button the hooks and then begin to drape the sari. This task is a challenge as her body has stiffened, but I manage to hold her legs up and loop the layers of the soft, slippery fabric around her waist and then gather the pleats over her chest. On a plate, I arrange generous portions of rice, ghee and sugar to keep beside her. Whether they are meant to be an offering to her spirit or the Lords above I’m not sure, but I adhere to this custom, fearing the possibility of an unfulfilled soul.

I step out of the room and see a stretcher laid down. The lump moves from the rib cage to my throat as her finality edges closer.

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People begin to come. Father and Bhikhu attend to them impassively while I stand in a corner. The mourners pay their respects to my mother’s corpse; with tears, with clasped hands over mouths, with wailing and thumping of chests, with silence. Some of them share stories about her they have collected over the years, to show how well they knew her. I can see an uncle, who had once pinched her playfully when she was a young bride, sitting and crying the loudest, asking why the Gods have taken away his sister.

An aunt comes to help me make more tea and asks if I am going to stay on. When I tell her that I don’t know, she says, “Yes, money is important. But your father is old. And anyway, you will not get married now. Just take care of him and you might get this house also in your name. Bhikhu is hardly around.”

My father is old. He is older than my mother was, still drinks adulterated alcohol, has had his broken knee bones set twice, smokes beedis that make him cough through most of the night. If he had any money, he might have tried to find a second bride. He is a walking wreck and still alive, but she is gone. Death is as unfair to us as life is.

I don’t know how much time has passed before a stranger whispers into my father’s ears, who appears to know a lot about the good times to do this and that. Husband and son lift her body and transfer it to the bamboo stretcher. She is wobbling and I worry that the base is not strong enough and she will fall right between the two long handles. When I reach forward to help adjust her body, Bhikhu flicks my hand off.

Men carry her without grace as they manoeuvre through our narrow door. There are more women crying. I watch the soles of her feet disappear.

I look around the empty home and cry for the first time. My mother is gone. I think of the last time I saw her, when I was getting ready to return to my work. She was packing into a bottle some of the dried coconut chutney she’d made with a mortar and pestle and telling me that I could send less money from now on since most of father’s loans were paid off. Her voice was cracking as she asked me to find a nice boy in the city itself and get married. She told me that I was turning into a beautiful woman and should be careful with the men who visited the house I worked at. I laughed at her and she got angry, warning me to take her words seriously. “You don’t know men, Mala. Nothing worse than a man who finds a way to own you without your permission,” she told me as she stuffed greasy sweets into my bag. Later, when I unpacked, I would curse her for the ghee that had oozed out of the box and onto my clothes.

Before Bhikhu and father can return, I pack up and leave home. For a minute, I sit in the middle of the house imagining my mother standing in the kitchen and wiping the sweat off her face while I read out words learnt at school. Then, I take a few of her saris and all the jewellery, and walk out without looking back.

At the bus stop, I keep waiting for Bhikhu to come flying wildly and drag me back. I even hope for it. The bus finally arrives, and I get on to it. It crosses the little shops, plots of green and brown fields and then reaches the highway. This time I have a whole row to myself.

Perhaps my father was right; it was her heart that gave up on her, tired of being pumped day in and day out for a life that was never coming her way.

Her coral earrings are tucked safely away in my handbag. Tomorrow, I will see how much I can sell them for.

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