Rani Neutill | Fiction

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do you love me?

Beriye jao bari theke!”  Usha yelled at three of her children, Krishna, Aditya, and Shanta, demanding they leave the house.

The one that all the fighting was about, Buku, she was tucked into a nook in Usha’s bedroom, a tiny space for her to kneel and listen.

The rest of them were in the living room. The hum of the traveling fan above them. Aditya yelled back first.

“Ma! Buku can’t be spending time alone with that boy! What will the neighbors think? God forbid, what if she gets pregnant?”

“This my home. She is my child. If I am not worried about it then you all shouldn’t be either. If you don’t like it, get out!”

Buku heard her siblings shuffling through the house, collecting their belongings, their fast feet on the cold floor of her mother’s flat. Light streaks of tears trickled down her perfect face. She was only doing what her mother encouraged her to do. The family was in need of money and she was the one that could save them. Her face, that absolutely appealing face, was priceless. It was currency, it was wealth. It was also a curse; the way beauty can often be.

The night before Buku met Sunil on the first floor of her mother’s apartment building. The building was Usha’s inheritance—it was the remnant of her father’s wealth. Her father died young, only 40 years old. He was a wealthy industrialist from Barishal, East Bengal. When he died, he left his business to his four sons, and his eldest, Debendranath, would take charge. But this son was not industrious, he was extravagant. Money slowly trickled out of him.

Then there was predictable legal battle that comes from an inheritance so large. The four brothers, tasked with carrying on their father’s name began to demolish it, turning it into something akin to ash.

Then there was history, things as large as the life and evolution of a nation. When Independence came, so did Partition. If the national landscape was no longer theirs, how could the small structure of a house or the terrain of a plot of land be theirs either? Usha’s childhood home, the bright yellow walls trimmed with green, the swing that hung from the sturdy branch of a mango tree, the courtyard built for children to play.

“They took it. It’s no longer there,” Usha would tell Buku. Her gaze off to where memories of that home resided. “All that land is now gone, only bhagavan knows who lives there now, Muslmans they took it all,” she’d conclude, her mind leaving that lost land and all that came with it. During the riots that erupted during Partition, people invaded homes. East Bengal was now a Muslim nation, East Pakistan. As Muslims fled east and Hindus fled west, there was no time to worry about property, people were too busy protecting their lives, protecting their children, trying to avoid the mutilation of bodies, the raping of men and women. Wealth during Partition was close to meaningless. But once the dust settled, the trauma of Partition there but now psychic, not physical, lingering forever as people re-built lives in new places, the realization that loss wasn’t just the loss of bodies and lives, it was also the loss of land and home. Twelve million people displaced by simple imaginary lines drawn on a map. History as ancestry forever altered.

Usha sold jewelry to feed her children. She begged her eldest brother for money to school them. Debendranath, absorbed in his own lavish living obliged and funded Buku’s schooling at Jadavpur University. Most of Usha’s daughters had been married off and the promise of daughters and dowry depleted any income her husband made. But with Buku, it was different. Her face, that gentle absolutely appealing face, soft in all its curves, eyes shaped like large almonds, pouted lips and perfectly white teeth. Her skin glistened with fairness. It’s color approximated whiteness. Only her black hair and brown eyes got in the way. For Usha, this face was gold.

Buku’s father, Abani Kanta, was a lawyer. His law degree should have provided wealth. Buku’s family should have been comfortable. Rich food should have lined their kitchen table. Gold should have filled their safe. The dark soot that formed on the edges of the building, slowly beginning to creep across the mustard surface, should have been clean. But he was what Usha called a do-gooder. He met with clients who didn’t have money, he didn’t aspire to accumulate wealth, he did not provide for his family—his thoughts elsewhere, moving away from material things. He wanted peace of mind and was willing to give up peace at home to get the meditative strength that came from relinquishing all earthly belongings.

Tumi merudondoheen!” Usha would yell at him. He didn’t cower.

Ask your brother for money,” he’d calmly respond. And she’d have to.

Sunil, the boy Buku was meeting, whom the fighting was all about, was the son of a zamindar, a wealthy landowner in the neighborhood. Usha knew he would marry her radiant Buku, the girl with the absolutely appealing face and skin that shimmered with fairness–pharsa. The assurance of marriage was just a taste—a taste of Buku’s sweet pouted lips, her gentle smile, the roundness of her high cheek bones—the enthralling nature of womanliness.

“Do you love me?” Buku asked Sunil that night on the ground floor of her mother’s building. Her siblings upstairs, her mother too.

They knew she was down there with him. They all did. Usha was happy. Her daughter would lure him. She was sure of it. She was sure her lovely daughter would save her from the weakness of her husband, the poverty of his generosity, her ancestry demolished by the stroke of a pen.

Sunil gazed at Buku as they lay on a small cot that looked like a hospital gurney. A thick, sturdy mattress held their light weight, resilient and resistant to their shape, never bending to the sentient beings that occupied it.

Sunil looked satiated, barely comprehending the question that she had asked, do you love me? A strand of hair fell across Buku’s high cheekbone, rose colored from the exchange of heat. Her petticoat was damp, her gaze and question smarting—she expected him to answer yes in exchange for satisfaction and the promise of more to come.

“Of course,” Sunil responded. He rose up and away from her.   

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” he asked.

“Your family is coming to meet me, yes?” Buku replied, her voice filled with anxious anticipation, a hope that she would please her mother, save her family, appease her siblings.

“Yes, yes, tomorrow. We will be here. I promise.”

* * *

Buku’s elder sister Gita was a problem. Her problem was insanity. There were stories about Gita’s encounter with a man who rented a flat in her mother’s building. She was sixteen then. The man was nice. He asked her over. He was a math professor at a local college and she was a struggling student. What happened, forever unspoken, left a mark of grief on Gita’s face. A mark of grief and numb disbelief. Gita began to drift away from reality. But then she found Ritwick, her husband, an arranged marriage, a happy one, and when she did, her eyes and mind came back to the center of the materiality of life. After a few years of marriage, Ritwick died. He had been playing with their children on their living room, seated around a large wooden Ludo board. Suddenly he couldn’t breathe. His hand placed fiercely on his chest as if he were trying to pull his heart out to give it some air. He died quickly. Gita began, again, to slip away. Her slow journey into insanity became a topic of conversation in the neighborhood. The family was cursed. Not even Buku’s beauty could transcend the misfortune of madness.

When Sunil’s parents arrived at Usha’s flat they were filled with the tales that fluttered about the neighborhood. They knew of Gita’s slow slip from sanity. They also knew about the illicit meetings between Buku and their son. Illicit meetings that made the mind swivel about with erotic interest.

Buku wore a black sari, a paisley white and red border, the edge stitched with gold thread. Sunil’s parents were in the living room waiting to meet her. She entered the room slowly, patiently, barely breathing from the fear that they might not like her.

Sunil’s mother was the first to look at her. A look of longing ran through Buku’s force of vision. Please like me, it begged. Buku scanned the room for Sunil, a familiar face, an intimate one. He was not there.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Buku said.

Ha,” Sunil’s mother spat.

Sunil’s father barely looked at Buku, as if his gaze might betray his keen interest in this girl who had been meeting his only son.

“We have heard that your daughter, Gita, is having some issues,” Sunil’s mother stated, looking over at Usha who was in the corner waiting, watching—a silent observer to a scene she thought would be different.

“She is doing good, I assure you” Usha responded.

“That is not what we have been hearing. We have heard that she visited Dr. Banerjee recently and he diagnosed her with some sort of mather dosh.

Na, na,” Usha replied, decisively, as if the confidence in her tone could make everyone think otherwise.

“Well, the rumors are there. We do not want our son entering a family that is plagued with madness.”

“Then why did you come here?” Buku asked, finally speaking, interjecting, water collecting at the corner of her eyes, sweat dripping from the sides of her forehead from the heat of the conversation.

“We wanted to see the woman our son has been cavorting with and ask that it stop.” Sunil’s mother snapped.

Buku looked down at the edge of her sari, the gold and paisley border, the solid black body. I shouldn’t have worn black, she thought to herself. It’s bad luck.

* * *

Do you love me?” This is something Buku often asked. She asked this often.

She is lying on his bed in a small flat situated in the heart of Southall, a suburban district of west London—an area primarily populated with South Asians. A rich history of their migration to this part of London began in 1965. She moved there in 1966. She was 19 years old.

She lives in a small room in a family’s flat. This is enough for me, she thought, upon her arrival. I don’t need much more than this. But she did. She really did. There was so much more that she was going to need from this universe, her world, so much more it wouldn’t be able to give her.

Anil, his face was in front of her, his face was the one who drew the question from her mouth, do you love me? A nice face, chubby cheeks, skin that matched hers, black hair and big brown eyes, I suppose, she thought, we look like we could be siblings. In London proper, maybe. But in Southall, people could tell the difference. He was Sindhi. She was not.

“Yes, of course I love you, Buku.” Anil responded.

She smiled. Her smile was radiant and gentle. It was uniquely hers—it lit up his room. She lit up his room with her smile, her gentle, radiant, absolutely alluring smile.

She started to sweat. Small beads of water forming on her forehead. Why am I sweating? It’s cold outside, I’m not supposed to be sweating. Cold. A foreign feeling. Her skin was used to the humid heat of Calcutta. Her body knew that it was her question, do you love me? Her question had made her start to perspire, her body’s way of telling him that she really wanted to believe him, that the answer to his question was in fact, really, truly, yes.  

It was winter in London and in Southall, the smell of Tandoori chicken and freshly made roti wafted into Anil’s small flat. It was thick that smell. It made her ache with the longing of all things pleasurable. Her stomach growled. She grabbed it in embarrassment as if she could control the noise making movements inside of her.

A silk sari adorned her body. A colorful silk sari covered in bright pink, red, and yellow flowers, a thin black border stitched with gold thread—she was a splash of color against the dreary dampness of London. A pair of elegant 14K gold tear shaped earrings hung from her ears. After her first week of living in London, working at the beauty parlor, she bought them—her first gift to herself in a new land. She cherished those earrings. Anil was her second gift, the one that would determine her future, how she lived, where she would go, the choices she would make that didn’t feel like choices at all. Sometimes she felt no choice in the matters that augmented her life. She let the expanse of living make decisions for her.

How they met felt irrelevant. It must have been through a friend. Maybe it was someone in the South Asian community. That mattered most in London—their both being South Asian. But the differences between them. She was Bengali.  He was Sindhi. She was a Brahmin. He was not. These things, they were insurmountable. During Partition, Hindus displaced Sindhis and Brahmins had always looked down on them. Her caste and ethnicity were an open wound of resentment. Anil’s parents would not approve of a woman who carried a history of prejudice against them.

There was a knock at his door. She looked at Anil’s face, it was layered with worry. “Who is that?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

Buku watched Anil as he got up from his place beside her, his face rising away from her, her question, do you love me? lingered on his pillow, tiny letters dancing about into another question, questioning her, does he really love you? they asked. His answer, of course, felt cold as it edged near her lips, ready for her to take it in, to inhale it without question. But of course felt as damp and grey as winter in London and her question, do you love me? felt as alive and real as her colorful sari. It felt as alive as the smell of North Indian cuisine that persistently and constantly traveled through Southall, London.       

She watched as Anil walked towards the door.

“Who is it?” He asked.

A young woman’s voice replied back in Sindhi.      

“One minute, Rekha,” he responded.

Buku knew it was his sister. She traced Anil’s movements as he walked towards her. She knew he was going to reach for her, move her, impose his body on where her body fit in the space of his small flat in Southall, London.      

“You have to hide. She can’t see you,” he said, frantic in the face, confusion over how or where to hide her, where to place her tiny body, a body that had just been a metric of pleasure was now an inconvenience.

She felt him grab her arm and drag her to the back door. When he opened it, he forgot that she was only in her colorful silk sari, her abdomen exposed, her arms bare. He pushed her into that cold forgetting that it would be too much for her. The heat from her question, do you love me?  wouldn’t be enough to get her through the damp cold grey of winter in London in just a thin, silk, colorful sari. Not even the smells of Southall could carry her through it.

* * *

A baby blue aerogram arrives one morning; navy and red stripes decorate its border. George James Neutill. Pasadena, California.  She is working for the Indian Consulate in Hamburg. She’s left London. She’s left her younger sister Poppy and her mother who she had been living with. She’s alone. A family feud over her lovers has propelled this solitary confinement. Her mother spouting the indignity of her daughter to the Indian community, “You know, she wears such tight clothes, it’s no wonder men stare at her.” This is her mother’s attempt to separate herself from the shame of her daughter.

She has failed her mother. Her sex has failed to provide her with the thing her mother wants most—security, money, something she had once had so much of. Now her mother resents her. Her mother resents that she fell in love with a Sindhi boy in London who abandoned her. All the men Buku ever pined for, the imprint of all their bodies on her bed have faded away.

Buku stares at the aerogram, it is personalized. Someone has put thought into the way the letters are written. They are soft, elegant curves. The G is calligraphic. A gentle man’s touch. A man from a country she is completely unfamiliar with. She picks the heavy letter opener that sits next to a cup of hot garam cha, neatly placed in the center of her low wooden coffee table. She gently places its tip into the corner of the baby blue aerogram and slowly cuts through the paper to expose the message that has come from so far away. She sits down on her small orange armchair, rubbing her fingers on the edge of the aerogram, the paper dry, worn from its travels. She silently thanks it for reaching its destination. She reads.

Dear Shukla,       

I hope you don’t mind the intrusion. I am a friend of Jack Pelham. I was recently visiting him on the big island of Hawaii and was struck by an image of you sitting on his office desk. I was rather enthralled by your photo and decided that I must reach out to get to know who you are. You see, I have become fascinated with Hindu mythology. Perhaps, in our correspondence, you might educate me. I know you live in Germany, but one day I plan to travel through India. I would love to see the floating Kanyakumari, visit Calcutta to see Kali Mundir. A bit about me: I am 48 years old. I am divorced and have two children, they are grown. Gay and Guy are their names. I run a timeshare company that sublets condo’s in Hawaii so that people don’t have to pay for overly expensive hotels. But all that is rather boring. Onto the more exciting stuff! I love The Beatles. I love the beach. I run. I sing in the shower (sometimes). I would love to start up a conversation with you. If you want, we could even exchange tapes, it can be more personal that way, you know? I do hope you will reply to this silly and intrusive note.
                                            Hoping to hear from you,
……………………………………………..George.

 

She reaches for the cup of garam cha in front of her, steam hits her face. She smells ginger and clove. She smells cardamom. She smells the possibility of relief from her current existence. She takes a sip.

* * *

“Do you love me?”

She whispers to her little girl, grazing her lips across her baby soft and tan cheek. Her daughter is four years old. George, her husband, her daughter’s father, has passed away. It has been a little over a year. The pancreatic cancer took his life quickly, without much mercy, a simplicity in death. Once the body turned against itself, it only took six months to run its course until it ceased to live.

She never realized that with death, predictable chaos could happen. From the moment her husband’s breath became air, property, money, belongings—they were of utmost concern. There is no space for mourning amongst the living.  It was as if the structures of homes and the ether of bank accounts obscured the memory of his body, his breathing and then dying body, so that when dead, the only remnants of him would be these things—how much money did he leave and who was going to get it. She should have known this would happen. It happened when her Dadu, her grandfather, died. Why should it not happen now?      

George’s children and ex-wife sued her for assets, inheritance, life insurance.

“They didn’t once stop to think how alone I was with just a three-year-old little girl. New to this country,” she’d say to people, her eyes beginning to wander somewhere, away from the center of the materiality of life.

They court ruled in favor of giving Buku the house she and George lived in together. They had gone to Open Houses all over Pasadena, viewing home after home—beautiful manicured lawns, substantial backyards, Birds of Paradise growing in each, hummingbirds undisturbed by human presence, sipping on nectar, their wings moving faster from the sugar they digested, their feathers turquoise and silver, iridescent as the California sunshine hit their tiny frames.  

She was six months pregnant. A small belly forming against her small frame. She held on to it constantly, as if she could keep her baby within her forever. She admired the child growing inside, the myriad of shapes and spaces it could encompass within her. She found comfort in the warmth, the fetus nuzzling in the nook of her womb. She never wanted to let it go, ever.

“Buku, do you like this one?” George asked.

She scanned the house, the long hallway with Spanish tiles, the white closets that lined it. A living room with lush beige carpets, a dining room where she imagined a wooden sandalwood table, carved with flowers, a TV room for her daughter to play in, a backyard with a view of the tall buildings that jutted out of the cityscape of downtown Los Angeles. It was so much more than she had ever had. So much more than she had ever expected from life. This will make Ma happy, she thought. Respite, she felt it, suddenly, like she could finally be something close to happy. Rani, we will name her Rani, Ma will be happy with that too.

“Yes, I love it,” she replied.

“Well then, my love, let’s put an offer in.”

A little over three years of family living would happen in that house. A large wooden dining room table shipped from India, a TV room where Rani took her first crawl and then her first steps. Usha would come to stay with them, care for George while his body faded away; protruding bones, thin skin, grey and pale, gaunt.

* * *

George fathered his daughter, he schooled her.

“You need to learn to be giving,” he said to her one morning in their bright kitchen, floral wallpaper all around them.

Rani had been eating some Mishti Doi Usha had made. She was feeding Rani, slowly placing spoonful after spoonful of it into her mouth, gently scraping the layer of thick cream that had settled on the top of her sweet yogurt. Usha gobbled up that smooth slippery goodness.

“No!” Rani yelled, a toddler wanting things just for herself.

George calmly looked at his daughter and elevated his voice to the volume of a warning.

“You must learn to share! It is important. Let your grandmother have some yogurt, Rani.”

Rani looked at him, recognizing him as her father, the man who put her on his broad but now withering shoulders, carrying her around their backyard, making her giggle with delight.

“Ok, Dida, you can habe some,” Rani conceded, looking up at her father, her eyes filled with something like admiration for a man who gave her his shoulders to ride on. A man who gave her the wisdom of sharing.

* * *

There was fighting in that house, too. George had a PhD in Psychology. He was a minister. He was a businessman. He saw through his wife. He saw Buku’s intermittent slips from sanity. Her trembling lips, her fears and obsessive desires.

“I think you should see someone,” he said, once, an attempt to heal her wounds, those itchy mental wounds.

“No! You are the one who needs therapy, not me!”

“For our daughter,” he replied.

“If you stop sleeping with all those women, maybe I will go.”

George might have known about Buku’s mental state, but she knew about his womanizing. He was notorious. The looks of a movie star, smooth skin, a strong jaw, blue eyes, blonde hair, women found him irresistible, in turn, he found them irresistible too.

They were each plagued with uncontrollable actions, drives, and desires. But when George became ill, the family stopped fighting and became a family. Care and time, patience in each moment of his fading life, each breath that was a struggle. For those six months of dying, the intimate affection that is love, the care and patience needed crawled over the house and kept them a unit. Breathing and eating and embracing—the true meaning of kinship.

Usha cleaned George’s shit, urine and his skin that was beginning to sag off his face like old drapes, dirty and creased, making him look older than fifty two. Always a bucket beside the single canopied bed in Rani’s bedroom. A dark brown duvet. Rani watching on the sidelines, her toys splayed around her on the deep blue carpet. She saw her father defecate into the bucket each day, long phallic lines of bodily waste, her Dida removing the container to dispose of the feces, cleaning the vessel for a new day. Rani would later sleep in that room and remember that her father passed away on that same bed. She’d grip the brown duvet cover and cry, wondering who he was beyond memories of him teaching her how to share and shitting in a bucket while he wasted away.

Then George was gone. Usha had returned to India. Only Rani remained with Buku. They were all alone in that big, lavish home that Buku sometimes felt was a trap of loss and disease.  

Buku looked at her daughter. She looked nothing like her. Her hair growing darker each day, her eyes growing from blue to a deep hazel, gold specks dazzling within them. She had a long face, skin that tanned, her hair fine and soft. She looks just like her father, she thought to herself.  Again, she asked, “Rani, do you love me?”

Rani looked at her mother, adoringly, recognizing her alluring and appealing face, almond eyes, soft high cheekbones. She nuzzled her head into her mother’s thick black hair and breathed her in.

“Yes Mama! I love you soooooooooooooooooo much!”

And Buku believed her.

.

.


Rani is a former professor of Ethnic American and Postcolonial Literature at institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Salon, The New York Times Book Review, The Nervous BreakdownEntropy Magazine, and has essays forthcoming in Redivider and Electric Literature. She is a student in the Memoir Incubator at Grub Street in Boston, MA, working on a transnational memoir titled do you love me? about fractured identity and her relationship with her mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother. 

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2018-02-27T10:43:12+00:00