fiction

Fallen
Pervin Saket

When I was three months old, my mother dropped me on my head. After that, everything was her fault.

I heard the story as I was growing up, its recital squashed between miserable princesses and brave horses of dead kings. Every time Daadi narrated it, I felt the tension rising in my stomach. Oh, why couldn't Ma hold me tighter? Who gets distracted by a mere phone-ring? What if she had been standing instead of sitting? What if there was no carpet below?

I'd hold my breath and wait for the pronouncement. I'd run my hand over the spot with the missing bump and wonder at the mysteries of could-have-beens.

I asked Ma for stories too, but never this one. Instead she told me about long fingers hidden under staircase railings, waiting to catch children who wandered about at night. I never held the railing thereafter, not even during the day. Her stories were always warnings. The story of a fat man carrying away little children in shopping bags, printing more copies of them and then sending home a duplicate. The story of a girl who wanted long strings of pearls, longer and bigger each time, only to have the strings snap, the pearls scatter, the girl slip and be bedridden for life. The story of siblings being swallowed by the zebra in the zoo because they did not cross at the zebra crossing, did not look right, left and then right again.

I suppose my jumpiness comes from her. She usually had a startled look, as if she was surprised that her rotis could be so soft, her voice so quiet or her day so long. Like she was a terrible actor caught on a strange set. Like she was living a life that was not hers. She was alarmed at the doorbell, the knives in her kitchen, the heat of the stove and the sari around her waist. The sari was most uncomfortable, I suppose, for my grandmother would shake her head while my father kept telling Ma how beautiful she looked in it.

'Isn't your mother extra lovely today?' he'd ask me as we walked out for a meal of bhelpuri and pav bhaji. 'Like she is the mother of a rajkumari?'

Back home, Ma would begin slipping out of the sari even before she had kicked off her sandals. Then the large, dark nightie would come on, ballooning around her, breaking the illusion of her slim waist.

Sometimes I think she missed the burka though she never admitted it. The teeka on her forehead, the silver toe rings and the mangalsutra around her neck could not possibly hold her like she wanted. She took to hiding her nakedness in different ways. Ma darted in and out of rooms, a streak of cloth and flesh. She was particularly quick on days my grandmother decided to stay put in the living room. Ma ducked behind bookcases, stooped at the dinner table and lost herself among the miniature palms arranged in our balcony.

In autorickshaws, she arranged herself in the centre and people on the street couldn't see any passenger within. They would keep waving their arms frantically, cursing the driver for not stopping. Even when I look at her photographs, a slice of a face emerges from behind either Papa or me or her hair is arranged over her cheeks, her eyes turned away.

On Wednesdays we went to a park near the house and Ma kept her face behind an ice cream cone while I pranced between the slide and the swings. On the way she would mutter inconsistent, inconsequential things that she uttered only when we were alone. They were too insignificant, and too vague to ever be able to recall. They were delicate. When they appeared, I fell silent. Probably because I was afraid of killing them with the logical, crisp manner of conversation. At the park itself she was quiet and still. She once told me it was the sea; the frolic of the waves quietened her, as though there was someone else to do her work and she could take a break.

Then one hot, sticky Wednesday, as I was waiting for my turn at the slide, he appeared. Ma didn't see him at first. But, from the top of the slide, I watched him peer at her, his head shaking, trying to discern her face through the twirl of a strawberry softie.

'Amina?'

I had never heard her being called by that name. She had shed it with the burka. Ma shut her eyes for a second before turning to look. When she opened them, she moved the cone away. He was bent low, respectfully distant, the end of his kurta almost touching the ground. I could see her talking to him, but her voice was too soft to make out the words. Ma pointed at me after a few seconds and the man looked at me and smiled.

He came to the park every Wednesday. Ma took walks along the perimeter with him. They laughed and waved at me often. Each time they started a new round, they'd look up and wave. Sometimes Ma looked back from near the benches too. Once when Ma was worried that I was stuck awkwardly on the jungle gym, he reached out and plucked me off. His beard tickled me, so I giggled, and my mother giggled because she thought I was happy.

We continued going to the park even during my exams. When I expressed surprise at this since I needed to practise sums, Ma said, 'You'll go crazy if you just keep adding things all day. We need a change.'

Then the holidays came and then school and exams and the holidays again. Sometimes he took photographs of us on his phone and Ma smiled readily. She'd pull me on her lap and we'd say, 'Pleeeaaase can I have some peeeas and cheeeeese?' On some evenings, Ma tied her hair back instead of letting the strands fall over her face, and said that it was because of the heat. While walking they laughed less now and sometimes forgot to wave when a new round started. Their heads were bent in discussion.

At home Ma lounged on the sofa instead of darting into the bedroom. She assigned me the task of looking after the houseplants. Daadi said the poor creatures were dying in the heat anyway; the least my mother could do was to water them. I scowled and complained about the extra housework, but Papa said, 'Your mother must be tired. She needs to rest.'

And yet, no one else knew about the man in the park. I was afraid of speaking of him, of what that might mean. Ma was afraid of telling me not to talk about him, of what that might mean. Ma and I just walked, hand in hand, on the footpath, over the zebra crossing, towards the silent bubbles of those Wednesday evenings.

Once, in the middle of a movie theatre, Ma started to sniff. I asked her what happened. Daadi said it was a weak constitution and my father said, 'She must have caught a cold. It's the air conditioning.'

The cold seemed to remain for over a month. Ma was always resting. Often she'd be in bed before Papa returned home, and Daadi would have to heat up the food.

Now I had one more fear: of coming home from school and finding Ma gone. She wouldn't take long to pack and the park was so close. I'd get off the school bus searching for signs of change. Was the front door open? Were the neighbours over? Had Papa come home early? Was the little photo frame with my first smile missing? Did the lingering echo of a soft 'Amina?' hang in the air? But she was always home. Her arms were always empty.

One day I sat on her bed and asked, as casually as I could muster, 'So, did you go out anywhere today?'

'Where would I go?'

'To the park?'

Ma shook her head, which conveyed more sadness than surprise.

I snuggled up to her and she held me close. 'Will you let me fall down from your arms again?' I asked, 'On my head?'

First she stared and me and then pulled me closer. 'Why would you say something like that?'

'You let me slip once, no? What if you let go?'

'I'm holding you, right? I always will. Don't worry.' She rocked me for a while and, when she stopped, I rocked her.

The next day Ma got out of bed and baked a sooji cake. She dusted the house, ironed a pile of clothes and trimmed the plants. Everyone said that the flu had finally left her, yet we didn't go to the park. Initially, she said it looked like rain and then announced we would wait through the monsoon.

'In any case, you have this chronic cold,' Papa responded. 'Let it improve.'

My mother sniffed and stared.

And it did improve. Her periods of rest shortened. Soon, she kept awake until my father returned in the evening. She resumed her daily bending over the kitchen stove and ducking between clotheslines. When Daadi talked, Ma scrubbed the dishes more vigorously, snipped the plants more roughly and punched the dough until it yielded thin, soft phulkas. She resumed walking me to the bus stop and back, holding my hand tightly, recounting gory tales of disobedient children.

But she never really muttered again. Those soothing, soft, disconnected words that reflected her mind. I never heard them again, just like I never visited that park by the sea again. My mother took me to another place and I swished down other slides and swayed on different swings, but I never saw my mother standing self-assured again, the sea breeze pulling her hair back, her eyes unafraid, her lips grinning 'Cheeeeese!'

When I was three months old, my mother let go of me. When I was much older, I refused to let her go. Our scars are invisible, but I know that hers still bleeds, that her arms still ache to be held, that her ears thirst for her name, and that she'd have been better off with one of those duplicate children of her ominous stories.

Pervin Saket writes poetry, fiction and screenplays. She is the author of a children's series Adventures @ Miscellaneous Shelf Four and of a collection of poetry, A Tinge of Turmeric. Her work has been featured in Breaking the Bow, Page Forty Seven, Kritya, Indian Voices, Katha, 'Ripples' and others. Pervin blogs, conducts writing workshops for children and also works with teachers to integrate stories within classrooms.