Published in Kweli journal & nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers 2017
There was no choice. Jonas’ ailing grandmother had set up solitary residence in Pune and fractured her hip, and frankly, no one else could take the old lady to the loo.
“Will she die, too?” Jonas had asked his mother.
“She has to one day,” Mima said, as she moved towards the waiting taxi. “I hope she’ll remember who came to care for her.”
Uncle M came out onto his driveway and interrupted their goodbye to hand Mima an envelope. It contained cash. There was no mistaking that scent of upper class, crisp 500-rupee bills stapled in stacks. The money Jonas was used to now, the kind Mima gave him and Saira when she sent them down to buy onions from the vegetable pushcart, was different; wrinkled, aged and softened from the transfer between hands instead of machines.
Saira stood behind Jonas, sniffling, even though Mima would be back in three weeks. Jonas leaned against his sister, her arms around his chest, his walking stick discarded on the manicured lawn. Jonas had wanted to stop Mima, ask her not to leave them with Uncle M in his mansion. But Uncle M came up next to them and fastened his arms around Saira’s waist.
“Why the tears, my darling?” he said, squeezing her tight, his thick knuckles digging into Jonas’ back. “Whatever you desire, you will get. Is there anything your uncle can’t afford?”
Mima flung her empty suitcase into the boot of the taxi, banged the door shut, and asked Uncle M to give the driver directions. When her brother was out of earshot, Mima grabbed Saira by her arm.
“Bas,” she said. Stop. “Tears don’t buy anything. I’m relying on you.” She straightened out Saira’s crumpled top and put Jonas’ stick back in his hand. “And remember, don’t act poor.”
The children stood on the lawn even after the taxi had driven past the iron gates, their mother secure in the back seat, sweat loosening the grip of their clasped hands. Only raised voices penetrated the high walls that surrounded Uncle M’s Juhu bungalow: street vendors shouting out extortionate prices to passerby foreigners, auto-rickshaw drivers haggling with riders for a few extra rupees, a man bellowing at his chauffeur for not having anticipated the flat tire. After the guard had fastened the latch on the bungalow gate, Uncle M enticed the children back inside with the promise of a cold bottle of Limca in his steamy Jacuzzi. Jonas followed their uncle into the bungalow, counting each of his twenty-three footsteps. Saira dragged her feet behind him.
Jonas wanted no part of the dinner party Uncle M hosted the following week, but he tried to listen in from the kitchen. Though he couldn’t say why his sister barely spoke to him since their mother left, he knew the white marble he was sitting on was bought with Uncle M’s black money; black, the color of the underside of Jonas’ eyelid. He ran his fingers over the cold floor, searching for the dark swirling patterns beneath the stone. Jonas knew they existed only because it was the first thing people praised. Uncle M never said thank you. Even as a ten-year old, he knew one was expected to be grateful to Uncle M, not the other way around.
Jonas shuffled towards the door to the living room, his hands feeling their way across the wall one tile at a time. He could almost catch Saira’s voice in the crowd, but wanted to get closer. The air in the room changed when the door swung open and Uncle M walked in. Jonas felt a cool breeze on his skin from the air conditioning that was turned on for guests in the hall, but not for cooks in the kitchen who roasted lamb on flames and stirred bubbling makhani in metal pots.
“Arey, why are you hiding in here?” Uncle M said. “Come out with the others, or else they’ll think I’m hiding the blind boy in the cupboard.”
Jonas used the excuse of needing the bathroom. He thought to ask Bhiku where the servants’ toilet was, but the old man sprinkling cumin on the kebabs would not tell him. The self-proclaimed culinary expert who smelt of whiskey mixed with turmeric would never let Jonas cross that boundary. “Sir’s family defecate upstairs, thank you much,” he would say.
Even as a ten-year old, he knew one was expected to be grateful to Uncle M, not the other way around.
After their first night at Uncle M’s, two things had changed. First, Jonas’ father stopped visiting his dreams. His Papa used to come to Jonas constantly as the commuter on the Churchgate to Borivali train or the bearded man standing two places behind in line for a cinema ticket. Jonas had sight in his dreams, and still searched for his father every night. Second, and no less disconcerting, Saira stopped telling him stories. Jonas knew she had made up the anthology for his sake: The Miraculous Monday the Mops Died & Other True Tales. She had started it three months after their Papa’s death, when Uncle M’s hospitality had run out and Mima had hurried to accept the first vacant place she could find: a 10-square meter flat on Balaji Road was now their home. After Mima left in the mornings to find her day’s worth of paid work, Saira sat on the hardback suitcase they used as a table, Jonas cross-legged on the floor in front of her, and spun tales like an expert orator. She told him that the straw brushes they used to clean the dirt off the floor held ‘best hairstyle’ pageants, and the rats rustling in the corner wore top hats and spoke in British accents. The pangs of hunger in their tummies? “Just the voices of our ancestors checking up on us,” Saira would say to comfort him. Jonas leaned in sometimes and touched the spiral notebook at the end of a story, using his fingertips to feel the tiny bumps from her ballpoint. But her stories, and any kind of chatter, had ended abruptly upon their arrival to Uncle M’s. It was the stories and dreams he missed the most.
“Dream too much, you will be disappoint,” Bhiku said, grabbing Jonas by the shoulders to get him off the floor. He handed him a tissue box, and asked the boy to help him serve pakoras to the dinner guests. Jonas held onto the kitchen towel hanging off Bhiku’s shoulders and followed him around the living room.
A ceiling fan spun at low speed, providing just enough wind to blow back strands of hair and expose low necklines. Crystal droplets hung from two enormous chandeliers, each with curved bronze metal arms that appeared like tentacles swallowing up the dim light. No one sat on the dark green velvet couch; Saira had named it ‘the seedy serpent’ in a story she’d made up on their visit to Uncle M’s with their Papa the Diwali before he died, and Jonas hadn’t dared to go near it since.
Red wine scented the room and flattery flung through the air like slingshots, though Jonas knew the compliments were not true. “How are you still single, M?” one woman asked his uncle. Mima used to gossip about Uncle M’s female friends, with their too-tight tops and too-bright lipstick, but Jonas couldn’t imagine they looked worse than they sounded.
Uncle M introduced Jonas to his friends as the “brave young man.” Their pity made him sticky, especially when his uncle told them it was a hit-and-run that left the boy blind three years ago, only weeks before his father’s premature death. The hit-and-run did not shock the dinner guests; they walked past crimes in Mumbai day and night without noticing. Prostitutes choked to silence, wives burned to ash in kitchens, fetuses dumped in drainage holes. Drunks at steering wheels. Jonas had merely been in the way when he was seven years old walking back home on M.G. Road.
Jonas asked Bhiku to take him to Saira. When he felt the pleats of his sister’s long cotton skirt, he let go of the cook’s towel and tugged at her to step aside.
“What?” she said. “Don’t be a child.” She was only five years older than Jonas, but she now sounded like Mima.
“I’m bored. Tell me a story?”
“You know I can’t leave.”
“Later,” he said. “Come to my room.”
“Why not?” he asked, pulling harder at her skirt.
“Stop it, Jonu. I didn’t bring my anthology.”
“Just make something up.”
“My stories stabbed each other and went to Arthur Road Jail. I have to wait for the warden to come set them free. Happy?”
It took Jonas sixty-seven steps to escape the dinner party and find Saira’s bedroom. In the absence of her stories, it was the scent of sandalwood in her clothes that brought him some small comfort now. They were thrown about everywhere on the floor and his walking stick would slip on top of the new silk and organza fabric and throw him off balance. Jonas crawled along instead and found his father’s wooden keepsake box tucked under the bed frame. He shouldn’t have been surprised Saira kept it; she had been their father’s favorite. Still, he was curious. Why had she brought it to Uncle M’s? His fingers felt around for the little pieces of Papa he hadn’t touched in three years; a worn-out watch strap, a thick leather wallet, and other trinkets that smelt of his father’s Aramis cologne. At the very bottom, Jonas felt a square card, the surface glossy and smooth; a photograph.
Irked by his inability to see, Jonas forced himself to believe it was just an ordinary moment, the lens having captured nothing more spectacular than the sideways glance of a person on the street. But he was suddenly envious. If it was a photograph of their father, Saira could still see him, look into his eyes, find the creases that formed around his mouth when he smiled. Jonas put the photograph in his pant pocket, slid the box back under the bed, and pushed against the bedside table to pull himself up. He felt it then, the spiral ring of Saira’s notebook jutting off the edge of the table. When he ran his fingers across the pages, he knew it was the anthology; he had felt the tiny bumps of those hard-pressed ballpoint words before. But once he found what his sister had denied, he no longer wanted to hear her stories.
Mima was oblivious to her brother’s pretention, even though Uncle M reeked of it.
Jonas counted his way back to Uncle M’s study, thirteen steps from Saira’s room, where Bhiku had set up a mattress for him on the floor because Jonas’ nightmares had once sent him tumbling off the guest bed. Jonas preferred to be closer to the ground, near the ants, where the fall was shorter. The air flooded his nose with the dust of unread books and musky humidity of an old rug. Uncle M never came into the study; he was a businessman, the kind who only revealed half the construction materials he sold, and hid his gold bars in potted plants in fear of an income tax raid. The walls were unfriendly, and Jonas wished his sister had agreed to stay with him. But she hadn’t said a word when Uncle M insisted they each get their own room, a luxury he knew Mima’s children didn’t have in their own home, and one he liked to remind them of.
Mima was oblivious to her brother’s pretention, even though Uncle M reeked of it. He only quoted prices in American dollars and brought back objects from his business trips no one could pronounce. Once it was a vacuum operated by voice orders, a robot maid, of sorts. Another time it was a modern version of the classic Polaroid that could print photos with a Hello Kitty border. Jonas remembered that night because his uncle had insisted on taking a picture of the three of them in their new Balaji Road flat, the first and only time he’d set foot there. Though it had already been three months since Jonas’ blindness, the sharp sound of the Polaroid ejecting its photograph had hurt his ears, like the printer in Papa’s office spitting out paper after a jam. Jonas knew there was nothing picture-worthy in their moldy cramped flat, and remembered the only thing Uncle M had noticed was how photogenic Saira was.
“Wah, wah,” Mima had said in admiration, her way of showing Uncle M he was a man to be respected. “A gentleman’s belongings.”
But three years ago, Jonas discovered that there was not a single thing gentle about the man. After his father’s death, he had heard Uncle M shuffling through his father’s drawers while Mima and Saira sobbed on the other side of the wall. It had been only minutes after they had found Papa lifeless on the balcony where he took his afternoon nap.
Uncle M settled the affairs of closing down Papa’s business without a lawyer or Papa’s will, and sold the seafront property Jonas and Saira used to call home; using every last rupee to pay back Papa’s debts. Mima once mentioned to her children, by a slip of the tongue and with immediate regret, that she had never known their father to borrow money. Jonas read theft between those lines, but when Saira convinced Mima to confront her only sibling, Uncle M had said, “Arey, nothing a woman needs to bother with. Don’t you trust your brother?” He then offered to let the family stay with him until Mima figured out what to do with her lack of inheritance and two grieving children. That single gesture tipped the seesaw of family affairs heavily to one side. And though all the debts had been rounded up, something was still left owing.
When Jonas woke the morning after the dinner party, it should have been simple to walk up to his sister or Uncle M and ask about the photograph. He could have even asked Mima when she made her weekly call that evening, timed to align with Uncle M’s bridge nights at the club. But Jonas was not certain any of them would tell him the truth. Instead, he spent the following days in the kitchen with Bhiku, who let him peel the onions and pick coriander leaves off the stems. Uncle M slipped in and out of Mumbai that week; driving to Surat on business or flying to Dubai for pleasure.
When Jonas finally asked about his sister three days later, Bhiku said, “Even blind, you are better off a boy,” and handed Jonas a closed container of warm daal to take up to Saira’s room, thirty-four steps from the kitchen. Jonas guessed it must be the same thing that made Saira groan every month, when Mima said she was too impure to come to the temple, and didn’t let her touch any of the kitchen utensils. Saira slurped down the daal, and Jonas hoped the warm lentil soup would take the cold out of her tone. Then she lay down on the bed while Jonas sat on its edge, his back straight and tense.
“I know the stories are there,” he said.
Saira hesitated. “So? Doesn’t mean I have to tell you them.”
“You lied to me.”
“Don’t be a child. Who doesn’t?”
Jonas stood up, struck the notebook with the end of his walking stick, and left her alone to pick up the pages.
Saira took Jonas to Mangaldas Market the next time Uncle M left to play bridge. They had some time before Mima was due to call them. It was an hour away by rickshaw, but close to their old Marine Drive home, so Saira knew the shopkeepers. Jonas followed her around the market stalls, holding onto her skirt, his eyes itchy from the polluted air. When he touched the materials in the fabric shops, his fingers ran across a library of textiles, each cloth wrapped around a rectangular cardboard and slotted into the shelves like hardbound books. Silk, taffeta, organza; the materials Papa used to buy for Mima. Now she only wore nylon, and when she’d come home from washing hospital beds or cleaning office bathrooms, the cloth stank of the misery she’d worked in that day.
Jonas didn’t want to wait by himself outside the ‘ladies only’ shop Saira had gone into, but she had pulled her skirt out of his hand and left before he could argue. He inched closer in the direction of the door, and when Saira finally came out, holding the door open a few seconds so the air conditioned air could cool Jonas’ face, he heard a woman inside arguing that the pills she’d been given were not the ones written on her prescription.
In the auto-rickshaw home, Jonas felt around for a shopping bag, but Saira reached out to hold his hand, so he didn’t pull away. When they’d reached the gate of Uncle M’s bungalow, his sister pulled out rupees from inside her blouse, the safe place where both she and Mima kept their currency and their secrets, to pay the driver. He heard the rustle of a small paper bag.
There were no passersby in this domestic captivity, and the silence terrorized him, blocking his ears with the pressure of a plane at high altitude.
“What did you buy?” he asked.
Saira walked towards the bungalow.
“Are you sick?”
She rang the bell, and waited for Bhiku to come to the front door.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, pulling on her skirt so hard that the tug exposed her waist. She jumped at the touch of his hand on her skin, and pushed him backwards. Bhiku opened the door to find Jonas on the floor, and Saira rushing past him to get upstairs. But the smell of fish frying in the kitchen made Saira turn and run instead to the servants’ toilet. The cook did not stop her from doing so.
Mima’s final call came an hour later, and Jonas sat on the kitchen floor, waiting for Saira to finish speaking to their mother from the hall. Saira did not mention she had been sick, and said “yes” and “no” and “hmmm” without much interest. But then her voice changed.
“If she’s fine, why can’t you come back early?” Saira asked. “You just left me with him.”
Jonas said little to Mima that night, and fell asleep in the study without eating dinner. He dreamt of the sky, indulged in its blue. He recognized faces; saw their eyebrows narrow in fear. He saw clothes, too. The hem of his sister’s skirt in Mangaldas Market, splatters of mud having landed in exactly three spots, one stained just out of line from the other two. Misfortune defied symmetry.
He awoke in the middle of the night, the smell of his own sweat sickening him. Jonas had been scared when they showed up at Uncle M’s that time three years ago after Papa’s death, their belongings wrapped in bundles of jute, piled one atop another like sorrowful sacks of rice. At first the sounds he had heard in the night had been ordinary; a lampshade knocked off its base, the thud of a book hitting the floor, a glass of whiskey shattered to pieces by the careless move of a hand. But then Jonas had caught gasps in the pause of those accidents, and knew the danger was louder in the silence.
It was that same silence that rang with alarm in his ears tonight, warning him off slumber. He kicked off the blanket and left the study to go find his sister. Her room was thirteen steps to the right. He knocked and quietly called out her name.
She wasn’t in her room; he knew. Usually he could sense her, especially when she was trying not to be found. Jonas quickened his step and made his way downstairs. The hallways whispered occasional creaks from Jonas’ uneven footing. A door banged shut near the kitchen.
“Saira…Saira?” he whispered. His made his way through the living room, kitchen, library, servants’ hall, and eventually back upstairs; he walked the thirteen steps again from his room to hers, but nothing. He continued down the hall.
“Saira…oh, my Saira.” His uncle’s voice jolted him, and Jonas came to a standstill. Even days later, he wouldn’t be able to recount the exact words that followed in those minutes. The only thing he would hold to memory, the sound that repeated itself over and over, was that of a quick click, followed by what Jonas knew as the shriek of an instant Polaroid.
Standing outside Uncle M’s bedroom, Jonas screamed from the depths of his frail body, but not even a whimper could be heard. He tried so hard to produce sound, any sound. A passerby would have assumed he was a nauseated patient trying to vomit. But there were no passersby in this domestic captivity, and the silence terrorized him, blocking his ears with the pressure of a plane at high altitude. Jonas, like Saira, was deprived of his voice.
The rest of the week passed as if a dream, the first time Jonas’ days had come close to resembling the tremors of his night. Saira didn’t speak; neither did he. It rained without stopping, the monsoon flooding doorways and moods with misery. The smell of damp was sickening, and mixed with the obnoxious sweetness of saffron cooking in the kitchen, it made Jonas want to retch. He didn’t though, for fear of drawing any attention to himself, and instead spent the days walking up and down the stairway, in and out of rooms, touching, feeling, memorizing the placement of objects and door handles and bed frames. Jonas had never studied a home so closely, but felt it was necessary to know this one in particular, in case his mother raised any doubts at his telling.
When Mima returned, tired from her journey and slightly irritable, she told them her weeks of caretaking had not been reason enough for Jonas’ grandmother to include her in the inheritance, which she had reserved for her only son. It was their last night in the mansion, and Uncle M was out of town again so there was no fanfare of a final meal. After dinner, Jonas sat on the floor of Uncle M’s study and held out the photograph, his arm outstretched in front of Mima. Saira had closed her bedroom door for the night, and Jonas and his mother were midway through a game of braille Scrabble. Even though he couldn’t see Mima’s face, he turned his own to the side, ashamed to look directly at her. The photograph hung between them, suspended in that momentary pause, flailing in the air with the nervous shake of Jonas’ fingers. Perhaps, with sighted eyes, he could have read the crime in her hesitation.
“Beta…” Mima said, an endearment she saved for when people died. “This photo…”
“I know what it shows; I heard the camera. What Uncle M did to Saira; he must have done it before and he did it again when you were gone and Saira won’t say. She never says anything, Mima. She never speaks…”
“Jonas, bas, stop,” she said. “I will talk to Saira tomorrow.” She sighed. “I will see to it.”
Jonas wanted to scream his lungs out of breath, shake Mima into terror, send her running for Saira now, not tomorrow.
“You are shaking,” Mima said, moving towards him. Jonas recoiled. She patted his head and stood up to leave. “Go to sleep. I will talk to Saira when she’s awake. Let’s put the photo back for now.”
She snatched the Polaroid out of his hand, and just as swiftly, was gone from the study. He counted her steps as she walked down the hall to the room on the right: nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen. He heard her open the door, pull out the box, push it back under the bed.
For the first time, Jonas recognized the true disability in his blindness; because though he had never told Mima where he’d found the photograph, she had known exactly where it belonged.