Those you cannot see

by Lavanya Shanbhogue

ON A RAINLESS monsoon Sunday, she walks to the electric train station closest to her house. She turns back twice to look at no one in particular. Sunday is a good day; the railway police are an uninterested lot, sitting around on their motorbikes, drinking cardamom tea, talking about this and that, and when it rains they move under a blue tarpaulin sheet. Around her neck she wears a black amulet that her mother has lent her and around her wrists she wears a blue and white bracelet of beads that look like little white eyes. She wears rings on all fingers of her left hand, yellow sapphires and amethyst, jade, moonstone and a large lapis lazuli ring for her thumb. Her right hand is bare except for a little black dot that her mother has drawn on her palm.

She takes long strides and makes her way to the entrance of the station located on a street about ten feet wide that’s two-way, magnanimous for a thoroughfare. Traffic is everything – vehicular, bovine, people, poultry, street dogs, about a dozen of them in varying states of famish. She walks past the animals towards the station’s entrance, ignoring adolescent boys playing street cricket, wooden planks as bats and dry bamboo sticks as wickets. She watches a woman drive by, steering carefully to avoid the dogs and the clucking hens. She watches as the front left wheel of the car gets wedged in soft mud, almost hitting an old woman sitting on the threshold of her mud house oiling her knees, her long thin hair draped around her shoulders. The old woman mutters little phrases in Hindi.

Women who drive. Women who masturbate. House-husbands. Disgusting.

She walks past the mud house, past a little shop that sells loose liquorice candies from large glass bottles, past a flower seller seated with a basket of jasmine and chrysanthemums on what was once the pavement. She walks into the railway station. She turns back one more time but nobody is there. She goes unnoticed as she knew that she would. She is a tall person with an ordinary, unremarkable face, the kind of face that disappears into crowds, never to stand out, just about fitting in but if you look more closely, not fitting in at all. The nose is too large, the head too small and her complexion was described as ‘wheatish’ in the matrimonial advertisement her parents placed for her in the papers.

Today her breasts feel heavy and she’s feeling a certain something in her belly, a little rumble, like she wants to keep burping.

She walks to the railway platform and all the way to the far end, the place where the train’s engine will halt. She has chosen the Harbour Line because there won’t be many people. The platform is vacant, almost bare except for a family of four seated on the rusty iron bench. An old man in khakhi sweeps the ground while chewing betel leaf and she watches the red juice stain his teeth. His lips and the sight of the liquid touching his dark bushy moustache makes her nauseous, more nauseous than she was this morning.

She looks at her watch, a possession she is sentimental about – an old HMT with a stainless-steel body that needs winding. She then looks at the display board that flashes the arrival and departure of trains. She’ll be run over on time.

JUST THE OTHER day they were all looking for two but find only one and she tells them, keep looking, keep looking, because it’s very important to her that they find the second one but those who are looking regard her with something that resembles sympathy and say, ‘No, we’re sorry. There’s only one.’

‘Are you sure?’ he asks

‘Yes, there’s only hers,’ they say.

‘What do we do now?’ she asks, her voice low, her eyes moist, her cheek sunken and her face ashen.

‘You come back in the evening and we’ll take care of it.’

They both know that they won’t come back that evening; maybe the next evening but not the same evening. It’s too much for one day.

They walk out of the white building and into the waiting car. The driver knows that he has to take them home. She sits by the window and he sits beside her; he’s checking his phone. She looks outside and watches Bombay go by. Street hawkers are selling peanuts in paper cones while dirty little children throng traffic signals, knocking on car windows peddling many things – the day’s newspaper, colouring books printed on cheap paper, jasmine buds strung together, a string of green chillies and a single lemon to ward away the evil eye. They have to make a sale when the light is red.

The boy outside her window is small and his eyes dart to the light. Still red. His knocks on her window become more frantic, more powerful as his little fists thump the glass. He speaks with his eyes.

Please buy this. I need food.

She purchases a string of green chillies strung together with a whole lemon. He stops whatever it is that he is doing on his phone and looks at her.
‘It is the evil eye,’ she says ‘It has to be. We can’t see them.’

He says nothing. The light turns green.

THEY LIVE IN a simple Bombay apartment on the twentieth floor of a high-rise. The flat has two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. The floors were white but she had them changed to a bamboo-coloured tile that resembles wood. You can do that these days, use one thing to look like something else, polished porcelain to look like marble, cheap quartz to look like granite, a coat of golden paint on wrought iron to look like brass. She is like that. She looks whole although she’s unfinished.

When they enter their flat he sits down on the sofa and she walks to the kitchen to make chai.

Later that evening they say their goodnights, he with a raised hand and she with a nod. She goes to her room and he goes to his. He wears a white muslin vest over white cotton pyjamas and she wears a long black nightdress.

She mourns in black. He mourns in white.

TODAY, BEFORE SHE left to go to the station, she went to her balcony. It is a sad, beautiful view. From her balcony she can see both Bombays, the little shanties covered in grime and dust, tucked away beneath layers of blue tarpaulin. When it rains, the water ricochets off the blue sheets and black water flows into sewers. In the other Bombay that stands by the shanties, ambitious buildings with glass facades sparkle as they stretch to the skies. On the left she sees a dense growth of shrubs and a clump of trees in the distance. She knows that the Tower of Silence stands a few metres behind the coppice of vine creepers and palm trees. It is a bleak stone tower within the Doongerwadi jungle, where the Zoroastrians leave their dead behind for birds of prey, especially vultures, to feed on. She wonders what it might feel like to be eaten alive by vultures. She closes her eyes and imagines sharp, pointed beaks pecking at her arm, her thigh, her belly, tearing, nipping flesh away from her bones, the sharp pinch, the pain, drops of blood, scarlet trickling down her calves to match the nail paint of her toes. She wonders what it might feel like to jump off, to fly, to float in the air, to hit the concrete, smashing her head, blood everywhere, brains spilling out. Will the pain merge with death? Will she feel anything at all? What if she were to pop some pills? How will that be? She thinks of a number. Seventeen. In her mind she sees herself cradling little white pills in the palm of her hand, swallowing them, three by three, and then five by five until her bodily functions shut down, one by one, like inviting the darkness by turning off the lights, one by one, each night at bedtime.

She thinks of Anarkali, the slave girl, the dancing girl who was buried alive between stone walls for being in love with the crown-prince Salim. She thinks of how it might be to stand still between cold stone, walled up, as a tomb is raised around you shutting out the light and air while you breathe slowly, then gasp and pant and beg for air as your lungs twitch and convulse until you are over.
She turns to the right and sees the steel and wrought-iron electric train rattling across the tracks that run past her apartment. She walks back to the living room and towards a wooden shelf on the wall. On it stands the Lionel Mogul, a miniature battery-powered electric train that her father bought for her on one of his business trips to the US, before he left her mother.

THE FIRST TIME it happened she was eight years younger. They had been married for two years. She was with her client, a handsome woman of fifty-three. She remembers the day clearly because she remembers exactly what she was wearing, a white blouse over a short navy blue skirt, pointed pencil heels and a string of small pearls around her neck.
The client turned to her and said, ‘Look, I don’t want it easy and clean for him. For me, easy and clean. Got it?’

‘I’ll try,’ she said with a smile.

She knew that it wasn’t going to be easy or clean for either of them but she didn’t say a thing.

The client turns to her again and says, ‘I want his blood. Got it?’

And that’s when it happened, when the woman said blood. She excused herself and told her client that she had to go to the bathroom, for just a minute
please, but the older woman was very reluctant.

‘What if they come, the men, when you’re gone?’

‘I won’t be long. I promise.’

She couldn’t keep that promise. It took twenty-nine minutes and her client found her on the bathroom floor, her hair dishevelled, mascara goo around her eyes and blood trickling down her thighs.

Even then they looked for two and found only one.

 

LATER THAT NIGHT he watched the sports channel for a while; the women’s archery team was celebrating something. He changed the channel and began to watch some American sitcom. When the picture quality dilly-dallied between grainy and grainier he walked to the TV and thumped it on the top with a fist. The news channel came on and there was a story about a state-run orphanage who solicited clients for their female inmates. Images of little girl children, their faces pixelated, wearing tight sequinned bodices over glitzy skirts filled up the screen and the word shame appeared again and again. She felt sick. He switched off the TV.
She told him. He took her in his arms and they sobbed together.

 

THE FOURTH TIME it happened, her mother came to visit.

‘It’s the evil eye,’ her mother told her. ‘Young lawyer doing well, house in a high-rise, a good husband, a car, a driver…yet an incomplete family. The evil eye. Somebody’s eye.’

When her mother spoke she became afraid. She remembers being afraid as a child.

Put your toys away else the toothless witch will come.
Tie your hair otherwise everything will go black.
Don’t whistle. You’re calling out to the spirits of the night.
Put the train set away. All that noise and the dead might rise.

‘You can’t be sure who they are but they are there,’ her mother said. She said nothing. What can you say about those you cannot see?


FOR SEVEN MONTHS her mother stayed with them. Every evening she was greeted with a fistful of rock salt that was rotated in the air, around her face, almost like her mother was drawing an invisible circle. On other days it was the burning of red chillies on the stove. The brighter the flame the more potent was the evil eye.
He didn’t mind, at first, when little things appeared in the closet, on the shelves and on the centre table, things like a picture of a blue eye looking outward, a six sided mirror hung on the front door, pyramids in different colours, crystal, rock salt, candles…but when she brought a leather amulet for him to wear and suggested that they go to a god-man who had helped a sixty-nine-year-old woman conceive, he told her that she was going too far.
‘You’ve never liked my mother,’ she told him.
‘That’s not true,’ he told her but she wouldn’t listen.
‘You can’t see them but they can see you,’ she told him.
Please. He told her a few things about how she’s changed, how it’s not about the babies anymore or how badly they both want them, about how she regards everybody with suspicion, about how everything has become about being protected from those she cannot see. She cried. He reasoned. She sobbed. He left the room exasperated. She wept.
Her mother watched them from behind a half-closed kitchen door. She watched them go to different rooms, sleep in different beds.
The evil eye is causing them to fight.

 

THOSE SHE CANNOT see. They haunt her. She thinks of them as hooded creatures in black, following her around, waiting for her to falter, waiting to strike. The pictures that she has made at art class in school comes to her mind, the black giraffes and the grey peacocks, people with no faces and animals with two legs.

She thinks of the people she runs into every day, ticking off names from an invented list. An old school friend who’s in serious debt, a colleague who lost the last two cases, maybe the overweight neighbour with two children, maybe the man next door who failed his law exam twice, maybe her sister-in-law who stays at home taking care of her ageing parents…

Those she cannot see are ones who have been stealing heartbeats, she decides.

 

TODAY, THIS SUNDAY, he comes to her. She is sitting down on her bed surrounded by her crystals, her pyramids, her beads and her mirrors.

‘How’re you feeling?’ he asks

He’s seated on a chair beside her. He’s leaning in towards her.

‘Um… Hmm,’ she says.

‘We have to take care of it. It’s not healthy.’

‘I will,’ she says

 

TWO TRAINS HAVE gone by on the opposite platform. To get there she has to cross an over-bridge. The train she is waiting for has not come yet. She looks at the display board and sees the word ‘delayed’ appear in Marathi first, then Hindi. She becomes aware that somebody is watching her. The platform has more people now. She turns back to look at the family of four. She regards them with some curiosity. Two little children wearing clothes that are too big for them are huddled close to their parents. The father is talking to the man in khaki with a broom. The mother meets her eye and smiles at her. She smiles back, a twist to her lips, but there’s no warmth in her eyes.

‘It’s late,’ says the mother taking a step towards her.

‘Um... Hmm, yes.’ she says

She frowns as she watches the children who begin to chase each other around the bench. The father, from where he is sitting, speaks to no one in particular

‘It should come now. I called the helpline.’

‘Um… Hmm,’ she says while contemplating how she might do what she has come to do in front of these people who are talking to her like she’s somebody with a schedule to get to some real place.

‘Don’t worry,’ the father tells her, ‘you won’t be too late. A few minutes here and there…’

‘OOOyyye!’ the mother suddenly calls out to her children. ‘Don’t go down to the tracks! It’s not a joke!’

‘These boys,’ says the mother turning to her, ‘playing like that. But don’t look so worried. You’ll still make it.’

They’re kind, affable people who mean well but what she needs is some solace and a train that arrives on time.

They are too close to her, too concerned and will not let her finish her business.

‘I am going to take a taxi,’ she says and with a quick raise of her hand, she waves goodbye and leaves.

‘WHERE DID YOU go today? Before we went to the hospital?’

For a long moment she can’t breathe. She closes her eyes and thinks about what she was about to do. She thinks of the lady reprimanding her children, telling them that going to the tracks was not a joke.

‘Where’s my mother?’ she asks.

‘I told her that I wanted to be with you for a while.’

She’s silent. He speaks again.

‘Where did you go today?’

She looks at him, his stubble, the shadows beneath his eyes and something like sadness written all over his face.

‘I went to see the trains,’ she says touching the Lionel Mogul that she’s brought with her to her bed.

He smiles, sits down beside her and touches her hair with a light hand.

‘Did it calm you? Watching them go by?’

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I will go back tomorrow.’

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.