Advertisement
fiction

It is not about Melbourne; It is about Melbourne
- Anubha Yadav

I was determined to find ways to stay away from home. The beauty parlour seemed like the easiest asylum. Also, the place was very close to where I worked. Home had not been the same for some days, since Buaji had come to visit. This year, her visit had been most unbearable because of Amma's absence. Until last year they had given each other company: talked, cooked, massaged each other's heads, and sunned their sallow bow-legs in the balcony, where the winter sun spread itself out generously for more than three hours in the afternoon.

They stayed inside the apartment, reopening old wounds, settling old family accounts, and resolving animosities. Buaji gave company to Ammaji; Ammaji gave company to Buaji. Both of them felt they were doing a favour to the other. We, 'the sisters', were left alone. We only had to be courteous. The morning 'namaste', the evening 'hello buaji', the occasional 'goodnight', and the month would be over. They called us 'the sisters' — the two of us, the only single women in their forties in our whole Punjabi clan.

'October is damned every year because of Kusum. We can't go anywhere, do anything,' Amma would complain every day in September, secretly waiting for Buaji's call. Even after so many years, Buaji managed to maintain suspense about her coming. She delayed the call, or called as early as August sometimes — to say she might not make it that year. Finally, though, she always confirmed her visit, but only after a few cancellations and changes, for she felt she shouldn't seem too eager, or idle, or desperate to anyone.

As soon as Amma got the confirmation, she would curse Buaji for not leaving her alone even for a year. She also prepared the guest room for Buaji the same day. This happened every year for twelve years.

And then Amma died last year.

Buaji called much before time this year, early in the morning at 6.00 or so. I was expecting a man's voice, thinking of dirty talk. My husky hello went unnoticed as I heard Buaji's hello from the other side. Forgetting she couldn't see me, I covered my bare breasts under the sheets. I heard her wish to continue with the ritual of visiting. I welcomed her, more so because I didn't know what else to say. 'It's your house, Buaji, come whenever you want to,' I blurted out magnanimously, still half asleep, wishing Buaji could change into my dirty-talker.

Somehow, it never struck me that her visit would be different without Amma. Soon after her arrival, we realized she didn't know what to do with us, much like we didn't know what to do with her. At times, she tried to replace Amma, on other occasions she behaved like a mother-in-law we didn't have or wanted: wear a salwar kameez to work, don't talk on the phone for so long, why do so many people call you at night? What do you sisters do on computers so late at night? After Amma's going, we, 'the sisters', had got used to staying alone. We had tasted more freedom in the past year.

So now we tried hard to be discreet again. We knew single girls were expected to live prudent lives. We knew men didn't visit them after sunset. We knew how to be respectable-single-women who belonged to respectable families. We knew all that and we knew better. The 'better' stood challenged by the visit, because Buaji was an exceptional sleuth, much better than Amma in her heyday.

But even that was manageable for a month. What got our goat were the long conversations with Buaji. For a seventy-four-year-old, she had a remarkable memory. Her stories continued seamlessly, while walking from the kitchen to the bedroom with tea, and dinner, and lunch — all through weekdays, and on weekends. By now we knew that each anecdote would be about Melbourne. Or 'Mellbun'.

They were all about her visit to her son's place thirty years ago. The Son who sat amidst us toujours in parties as family gossip. This Son had made many of these parties bearable for us, the sisters, who loved the Son's utter prodigality secretly, as we crucified him in public. This Son had married a Chinese girl, and had divorced her, only to marry another Chinese girl. The Son lived in Melbourne no more. The Son who never called Buaji, or wrote to her, or did anthing Sons are supposed to do. The Son who was her only son.

*******

The parlour was not that busy. The only other client was a young girl. She was still wearing her red and ivory-white plastic bangles, customary for newly-wed women in India. The spa's darkness enveloped us. Our faces became shadowy. We found ourselves whispering to each other. The silver stones on the young girl's bangles sparkled as she settled on the high massage table. I noticed she was still wearing her mangalsutra — a triangular shape of gold and diamonds. It dangled from her neck and vanished into her bosom.

As expected, the bangles were not taken off for the massage. I had heard that losing even one from a set of twenty-one could spell doom for a newly-wed's marriage. Her mother had followed us inside. She was standing right next to the table, waiting to inspect the proceedings.

The beautician tied her bangles together with two handkerchiefs, as if wrapping up a baby. Even then they reached her elbows, completely covering her forearms; her pale brown skin peeped from small chinks — uncovered now, covered again — making patterns of brown, ivory-white, and red.

Green plastic curtains were drawn around me. I could only see translucent figures of the girl's mother and the parlour girl now. I closed my eyes, waiting for the heady mixture of the massage oils, and the ghazals, to drown my frustration against Buaji. I could still hear the newly-wed's mother giving instructions. The air conditioner's monotonous drone was another unwanted sound in the room.

'Do it with your finger tips only,' she ordered. 'Don't put pressure with your palms. It isn't good for her skin. It will sag.' Her heavy frame hovered over her daughter's almost-naked body. Somehow, it reminded me of Buaji, and I cringed.

The daughter didn't say a word. I could hear sighs and occasional murmurs of pleasure. I was staring at the white ceiling, wondering if I should ask the mother to shut-up. At that moment, hot oil poured over me. I closed my eyes.

Meanwhile, the girl's mother moved on to other worries. 'She is going to Ka-na-da,' she said with pride. 'Her flight is in five days. Her mother-in-law has asked her to learn threading, make up, and waxing before she goes.'

I suppose it was her robust Lahore-accent that reminded me of Buaji. I had grown up on a steady diet of that accent. I heard, 'Mellbun' in Buaji's voice every time she spoke. I told myself to focus on the lyrics of the ghazal.

'I heard there is an eyebrow-making machine?' she went on.

'No. No machine,' said the parlour girl. Her tone made it difficult to imagine that her hands were working gently on the young girl's face with hot perfumed oils. 'She has to learn how to move the thread. Not easy. Took me seven months to master the exactness, designing the curve, getting the arcs right.'

A long silence followed. That was when an ice cube landed upon my face, and for a moment everything else was consumed by its tingling coldness.

Ka-na-da pounded some more at my eardrums. I opened my eyes. My parlour girl's face was hanging upside down over me like a suspended moon. She gave me a warm smile. Her perfect teeth shone in the dark room as she asked softly, 'Is it too hard?'

My quizzical look made her explain, . 'The massage — is it too hard, ma'am?'

I closed my eyes without answering.

Silence followed. I wondered about the young girl and her new life in Canada: a strange country with a new set of people as family; a man she knew little about, another elderly woman as a mother. I wondered if she would talk about Canada as fondly as Buaji talked about Mellbun, in a few years.

A cold sandalwood paste plastered my face as my thoughts returned to Buaji. I tried to conjure up Buaji's past. Two miscarriages before a son was born, marriage at eighteen in Lahore being a brigadier's wife, her wonderful pearl necklaces, high-puff hairdos and chiffon sarees. Buaji lost her husband at forty-three, just my age right now. How different I was from her at the same age, I thought. Buaji, perhaps, had been sleeping alone for three decades now.

The massage girl cleaned my face with lukewarm rose water. The newly-wed girl exited the parlour with me. The handkerchief that had her bangles for safety was gone. The bangles were tinkling and dancing on her bare arms again. Her mother was fussing over her hair now, as they stood in the car parking.

I drove home feeling guilty, and so I bought some ice cream for everyone. Buaji served it to us after dinner. We could hear her loud slurps in the background.

'You sisters don't know, but this ice cream is nothing. When I went to Mellbun, we used to have sugar-free ice cream. Most tasty! Not like the medicine types they make here – the real ice-cream but with no sugar....'

Anubha Yadav is a writer, academic, and film-maker based in New Delhi. She teaches media studies at Delhi University. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Himal, Bangalore Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, Indian Literature, Cha- The Asian Literary Journal, Out of Print and Reading Hour. Work in progress includes a non-fiction book, Fatima's Sisters, on female screenwriters of Mumbai cinema.