Fiction

Normal
- Shubha Menon

Every few days, Meeta’s mother would take her to the roof. Standing on the very edge of the terrace, she would ask her to hold hands and jump off. Meeta would be frozen with fear. Slowly, she would inch away, millimetre by millimeter, and then bolt for her life.

Meeta tried to stay out of the house as mush as possible because there was no telling what her mother would do. One day, she came home early from school because she had a stomach ache. Mother gave her a hug, made her swallow ajwain with hot water and put her to bed. Meeta was acutely uncomfortable with her behaviour. She had never seen this side of her, the one that made her seem like a normal mother. She didn’t want to get used to it. Sure enough, the very next day Mother slapped her hard across the face, just because she had spilt a drop of dal on her shirt.

Mother was deeply worried about Meeta because she was not pretty or intelligent or smart. No one would marry her, Mother said. She couldn’t even do housework properly. Whenever she stood on Meeta’s head and made her shell peas, Meeta’s fingers jammed and she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t function.  Had her mother been like other mothers, Meeta would have told her why she couldn’t shell the peas quickly. She would have explained how helpless, clumsy and terrorized she felt when she pinned her critical gaze upon her. But Mother was not normal.

Meeta hated Mother with every inch of her small being. But she couldn’t tell anyone. Had there ever been a child so wicked that she hated her own mother? Meeta knew Mother was right. She was an abnormality.

The house was a perennial attraction for charlatans. They came in droves: pundits, maulvis and astrologers, all promising to make her mother normal. Some were sent by relatives, others by well-wishers and even passersby. Everybody knew about Mother.

In this world full of people, Meeta was painfully lonely. Her sisters and brothers had each other, but she had no one as she was the baby of the family. There were no cousins, aunts or uncles. Mother’s behaviour had driven them away. Nobody wanted anything to do with the mad woman. Every day was a struggle.

Since all three girls had long hair, Meeta’s oldest sister would plait the middle sister’s hair and she in turn would plait Meeta’s. Her long hair was the one pleasure that Meeta’s sorry life afforded her. But when it got infested with lice, Father had her head shaved, not knowing what else to do. Meeta cried inconsolably. Her father slapped her till her nose bled. His life was tough enough. He would pack tiffin every morning and not being too adept at it, make them all the laughing stock of their classrooms. While other children’s’ mothers came to collect them from school carrying cold flasks of nimbu pani, Meeta and her sisters walked home like orphans, conspicuous in their rumpled uniforms.

When Mother got into one of her violent moods, she turned into a fiend. With her demonic strength, she could wrench a brass tap out of the wall. Even break open  a solid wooden door. One night as Meeta sat doing her homework, she broke in, flung Meeta onto the floor and pummelled her chest with her feet. It took both of Meeta’s brothers and her father to pull her off.

After this incident, Meeta became paranoid about returning home from school. She would simply go to put down her bag and gobble some lunch. It would take five minutes to change out of her uniform and tiptoe out, taking care to avoid Mother’s attention. All afternoon she would haunt the colony lanes, playing hopscotch with imaginary partners till the other children came out to play.

Sometimes, her best friend Vinita would invite her over. She had the most fabulous collection of Enid Blyton books. That was the only time that Meeta would be truly happy. She would forget what waited for her at home. Auntie would bring milkshake, nice and frothy, with a straw. When Vinita fussed and protested, Auntie would gently cajole her and give her kisses when she finished the milk. Meeta would look away, numb with longing yet stoic in the knowledge that none of this affection would ever be hers.

As soon as it was time to go home, Meeta’s troubles would return too. When she cycled back, neighbours would call out and ask what was wrong with her mother. Why did she hurl stones from the roof? Why, just the other day, a brick had narrowly missed a passing car. Meeta would feign ignorance and look for places to hide.

But worst of all were the times when Mother appeared at Meeta’s school unannounced and asked to withdraw her. Meeta’s blood would run cold. The whole school would stare at her. For weeks after, teachers would whisper when they saw her in the corridors.

Meeta wished her mother would die. But it was she who deserved to die for thinking such evil thoughts, she knew.

One day, Meeta came home from school to find that her mother had run away. She prayed that they would never find her. But they did. Three hundred miles away, trying to reach her uncle’s place by giving her solid gold bangle to a rickshaw wala.

Meeta was so traumatized by her mother’s return that she had to be sent away to boarding school. There she would be safe, Meeta thought. But even in that idyllic hill school, there was no peace. Every time her name was announced among the girls who had visitors, her heart would fly to her mouth. What if Mother had turned up here too? Everyone else  waited for the holidays, but Meeta wished they would never arrive.

In the dormitory, the girls talked about their first boyfriends, first dates and first kisses. Once, the conversation revolved around the first period. One girl narrated how her mother had folded a handkerchief and showed how to wear a napkin, using her favourite doll for demonstration. Meeta recalled her own. She was only nine and clueless. Her sisters had told her as much as they knew. Meeta had limped around the house with a wad of rough cloth making welts on her thighs.

As Meeta grew older, her mother’s violent spells lost their edge.  But now Meeta was filled with an even deeper fear. Would she inherit her mother’s madness? What about her children? The doctors said she suffered from bipolar disorder. Would Meeta inherit it?

Years went by. Meeta got married and had a daughter of her own. One day she dropped by with her daughter to check on Father. Her mother lured her little girl to the terrace, and asked her to jump. From that moment on, Meeta determined never to subject her child to what she had been through. She would never see her mother again.

Then one morning, just like that, Mother died.

The family came together for her last rites, making the right grieving noises for the world to hear, while privately sharing their relief. Meeta refused to cry. She had been holding her breath for years. Now at last, she could let go.

Meeta saw a strange man in the queue of relatives offering their condolences as they filed past after the cremation. Who was this man who looked like a gnome?

The formalities of the occasion took over and Meeta forgot all about him. It was much later, when the last of the relatives had left, that he came up to Meeta.

He introduced himself as her mother’s neighbour from childhood. He had known her since she was born. His parents had migrated to Canada when he was twelve, and he hadn’t kept in touch. But he happened to be in India on work and had seen the obituary in the newspaper.

Meeta asked him what he remembered about her mother.

He described a sweet little girl with two plaits. The happy home with its picture-perfect family. He explained what had happened on the fateful day when a freak accident killed her father. He recalled the little girl’s shell-shocked face when they brought her father’s body home. He could still hear the chanting of mantras as the last rites were being performed.

In the shock and confusion, nobody noticed the crazed widow as she crept up the winding staircase that led to the roof. She leapt to her death, her jet black hair and white sari billowing. She had landed on her husband’s prone body.

Meeta had not known the story. She realized now why her mother was obsessed with jumping off from the roof.

The demons that chased her mother were far more powerful than anything Meeta herself had had to contend with. How could she expect normalcy from a person who had seen normal turned upside down on its head?

If only she had known.

A lifetime of resentment melted away. She forgave her mother.

As Meeta went to bed that night, she was at peace for the first time in her life. No fear, no remnant of terror or hatred remained in her heart.

She loved her mother.

Just like all normal people loved theirs. 

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Shubha Menon is a copywriter with Ogilvy & Mather Advertising in New Delhi. Her debut book, The Second Coming, was published by HarperCollins India in November, 2014. She is currently busy finishing her second book, a non-fiction account of a school for underprivileged Muslim girls. She lives in Delhi with her husband, daughter and two Dachshunds.