She was two years younger than her
brother, her tone sharper than his playing the scold to his
peacemaker. Thin like him, but sturdier, she had taken after
their mother, with few curves to soften the lines and angles.
During her girlhood, relatives would scrutinise her and remark
sadly that a fatherís love was sunshine and fresh water
without which a daughter could not bloom; a stepfather, they
said, was quite useless in this regard. Once, they were careless
and spoke in her hearing. Their words had incandesced painfully
in her mind, and she had fled to her room to weep for her dead
Jal tried the
bathroom door; it was locked. He scratched his thick wavy hair
before knocking gently. The inquiry failed to elicit a response.
over. "How many times have I told you, Pappa? Donít lock
the door! If you fall or faint inside, how will we get you out?
Follow the rules!"
the lather from his hands and reached for the towel. Coomy had
missed her vocation, he felt. She should have been a
headmistress, enacting rules for helpless schoolgirls, making
them miserable. Instead, here she was, plaguing him with rules
to govern every aspect of his shrunken life. Besides the
prohibition against locked doors, he was required to announce
his intention to use the WC. In the morning he was not to get
out of bed till she came to get him. A bath was possible only
twice a week when she undertook its choreography, with Jal
enlisted as stage manager to stand by and ensure his safety.
There were more rules regarding his meals, his clothes, his
dentures, his use of the radiogram, and in charitable moments
Nariman accepted what they never tired of repeating; that it was
all for his own good.
He dried his
face while she continued to rattle the knob. "Pappa! Are
you okay? Iím going to call a locksmith and have all the locks
removed, Iím warning you!" His trembling hands took a few
moments to slide the towel back on the rod. He opened the door.
, waiting for me?"
drive me crazy," said Coomy. "My heart is going
dhuk-dhuk, wondering if you collapsed or something."
mind, Pappa is fine," said Jal soothingly. "And thatís
the main thing."
Nariman stepped out of the bathroom and hitched up his trousers.
The belt took longer; shaking fingers kept missing the buckle
pin. He followed the gentle slant of sunlight from the bed to
the window, delighting in its galaxies of dust, the dancing
motes locked in their inscrutable orbits. Traffic noise had
begun its evening assault on the neighbourhood; he wondered why
it no longer offended him.
dreaming, Pappa,"said Coomy. "Please pay attention to
what we say."
he smelled the benign fragrance of earth after rain; he could
almost taste it on his tongue. He looked outside. Yes, water was
dripping to the pavement. In a straight drip. Not rain, then,
but the neighbourís window boxes.
my healthy legs, Pappa, walking is a hazard," said Jal,
continuing the daily fuss over his stepfatherís outing.
"And lawlessness is the one certainty in the streets of
Bombay. Easier to find a gold nugget on the footpath than a tola
of courtesy. How can you take any pleasure in a walk?"
decided he needed socks, and went to the dresser. Looking for a
pair in the shallow drawer, he spoke into it, "What you say
is true, Jal. But the sources of pleasure are many. Ditches,
potholes, traffic cannot extinguish all the joys of life."
His hand with its birdwing tremble continued to search. Then he
gave up and stuffed bare feet into shoes.
without socks? Like a Pathan?" said Coomy. "And see
how your hands are shaking? You canít even tie the
could help me."
ó if you were going somewhere important like the doctor, or
fire-temple for Mammaís prayers. But I wonít encourage
foolishness. How many people with Parkinsonís do what you
going trekking in Nepal. A little stroll down the lane, thatís
Coomy knelt at her stepfatherís feet and tied his laces as she
did every evening. "First week of August, monsoon in fury,
and you want a little stroll."
He went to the
window and pointed at the sky. "Look, the rain has
stubborn child, thatís what you are," she complained.
"Should be punished like a child. No dinner for
cooking that would be a prize, not a punishment, he thought.
hear him, Jal? The older he gets, the more insulting he
is!" Nariman realised heíd said it aloud. "I must
confess, Jal, your sister frightens me. She can even hear my
Jal could hear
only a garble of noise, confounded by the earpiece that
augmented Coomyís strong voice while neglecting his stepfatherís
murmurings. Readjusting the volume control, he lifted his right
index finger like an umpire giving a batsman out, and returned
to the last topic his ears had picked up. "I agree with
you, Pappa, the sources of pleasure are many. Our minds contain
worlds enough to amuse us for an eternity. Plus you have your
books and record player and radio. Why leave the flat at all? Itís
like heaven in here. This building isnít called Chateau
Felicity for nothing. I would lock out the hell of the outside
world and spend all my days indoors."
couldnít," said Nariman. "Hell has ways of
permeating heavenís membrane." He began softly,
"Heaven, Iím in heaven," which irritated Coomy even
more, and he stopped humming. "Just think back to the Babri
right," conceded Jal. "Sometimes hell does seep
through." "Youíre agreeing with his silly example?
said Coomy indignantly. "The riots were in the streets, not
Pappa is referring to the old Parsi couple who died in their
bedroom," said Jal.
remember that, donít you, Coomy?" said Nariman. "The
goondas who assumed Muslims were hiding in Dalal Estate and set
fire to it?"
my memory is better than yours. And that was a coincidence ó
pure bad luck. How often does a mosque in Ayodhya turn people
into savages in Bombay? Once in a blue moon."
said Nariman. "The odds are in our favour." He
resisted the urge to hum "Blue Moon."
week in Firozsha Baag an old lady was beaten and robbed,"
said Jal. "Inside her own flat. Poor thing is barely
clinging to life at Parsi General."
side are you on?" asked Coomy, exasperated. "Are you
arguing Pappa should go for a walk? Are you saying the world has
not become a dangerous place?"
has," Nariman answered for Jal. "Especially
indoors." She clenched her fists and stormed out. He blew
on his glasses and polished them slowly with a handkerchief. His
fading eyesight, tiresome dentures, trembling limbs, stooped
posture, and shuffling gait were almost ready for their vesperal
umbrella, which he used as walking stick, Nariman Vakeel emerged
from Chateau Felicity. The bustling life was like air for
starving lungs, after the stale emptiness of the flat.
He went to the
lane where the vegetable vendors congregated. Their baskets and
boxes, overflowing with greens and legumes and fruits and
tubers, transformed the corner into a garden. French beans,
sweet potatoes, coriander, green chillies, cabbages,
cauliflowers bloomed under the street lights, hallowing the dusk
with their colour and fragrance. From time to time, he bent down
to touch. Voluptuous onions and glistening tomatoes enticed his
fingers; the purple brinjals and earthy carrots were
irresistible. The subjivalas knew he wasnít going to buy
anything, but they did not mind, and he liked to think they
understood why he came.
In the flower
stall two men sat like musicians, weaving strands of marigold,
garlands of jasmine and lily and rose, their fingers picking,
plucking, knotting, playing a floral melody. Nariman imagined
the progress of the works they performed: to supplicate deities
in temples, honour the photo-frames of someoneís ancestors,
adorn the hair of wives and mothers and daughters.
stall was a sculptured landscape with its golden pyramid of sev,
the little snow mountains of mumra, hillocks of puris, and, in
among their valleys, in aluminium containers, pools of green and
brown and red chutneys.
A man selling
bananas strolled up and down the street. The bunches were
stacked high and heavy upon his outstretched arm: a balancing
and strong-man act rolled into one. It was all magical as a
circus, felt Nariman, and reassuring, like a magic show.
On the eve of
his seventy-ninth birthday, he came home with abrasions on his
elbow and forearm, and a limp. He had fallen while crossing the
lane outside Chateau Felicity.
the door and screamed, "My God! Come quick, Jal! Pappa is
asked Nariman, surprised. The elbow scrape had left a small
smear on his shirt. "This? You call this bleeding?" He
shook his head with a slight chuckle.
you laugh, Pappa?" said Jal, full of reproach. "We are
dying of anxiety over your injuries."
exaggerate. I tripped on something and twisted my foot a little,
Coomy soaked a
ball of cotton wool in Dettol to wipe the scrapes clean, and the
arm, smarting under the antiseptic, pulled back. She flinched in
empathy, blowing on it. "Sorry, Pappa. Better?"
He nodded while
her gentle fingers patted the raw places, then covered them with
sticking plaster. "Now we should give thanks to God,"
she said, putting away the first-aid box. "You know how
serious it could have been? Imagine if you had tripped in the
middle of the main road, right in the traffic."
Jal covered his face with his hands. "I canít even think
of it." "One thing is certain," said Coomy.
"From now on you will not go out."
agree," said Jal.
being idiotic, you two."
about you, Pappa?" said Coomy. "Tomorrow youíll
complete seventy-nine years, and still you donít act
responsibly. No appreciation for Jal and me, or the things we do
trying to maintain a dignified silence. His hands were shaking
wretchedly, defying all the effort of his will to keep them
steady in his lap. The tremor in his legs was growing too,
making his knees bounce like some pervert juggling his thighs.
He tried to remember: had he taken his medication after lunch?
me,"he said, tired of waiting for calm to return to his
limbs. "In my youth, my parents controlled me and destroyed
those years. Thanks to them, I married your mother and wrecked
my middle years. Now you want to torment my old age. I wonít
lies!" flared Coomy. "You ruined Mammaís life, and
mine, and Jalís. I will not tolerate a word against her."
donít get upset," Jal tried to calm his sister, furiously
caressing the arm of his chair. "Iím sure what happened
today is a warning for Pappa."
he learn from it?"she glowered at her stepfather. "Or
will he go out and break his bones and put the burden of his
fractures on my head?"
heíll be good. He will stay at home and read and relax and
listen to music and ó"
"I want to
hear him say that."
his peace, having spent the time usefully in unbuckling his
belt. He now commenced the task of untying his shoelaces.
donít like what weíre saying, ask your daughterís opinion
when she comes tomorrow," said Coomy. "Your own flesh
and blood, not like Jal and me, second class."
unnecessary," said Nariman.
said Jal, "Roxana is coming with her family for Pappaís
birthday party. Letís not have any quarrel tomorrow."
quarrel?" said Coomy. "We will just have a sensible
discussion, like grown-ups."
was their half-sister, Jal and Coomyís love for her had been
full and complete from the moment she was born. At fourteen and
twelve, they were not prey to the complicated feelings of
jealousy, neglect, rivalry, or even hatred, which newborns evoke
in siblings closer in age.
Or perhaps Jal
and Coomy were grateful for Roxana because she filled the void
left by their own fatherís death, four years earlier. Their
father had been sickly through most of their childhood. And
during brief stretches when his lungs did not confine him to
bed, he was still weak, seldom able to get through the day
unassisted. His chronic pleurisy was the symptom of a more
serious pulmonary disease, its two dreaded initials never
mentioned among friends and relatives. Just a little water in
the lungs, was how Palonjiís illness was described.
And Palonji, to
alleviate his familyís anxiety, made a running joke out of
this coded description. If Jal, always full of mischief as a
child, did something silly, it was due to a little water in his
head. "You must plug your ears when you wash your
hair,"his father teased. Clumsy hands meant the person was
a real water-fingers. And if little Coomy cried, her father
said, "My lovely daughter does not cry, itís just a
little water in the eyes," which would promptly make her
Contractorís courage and his determination to keep up his
familyís spirits were heroic, but the end, when it came, was
devastating for Jal and Coomy. And three years after his death,
when their mother remarried, they were stiff towards the
stranger, awkward in their dealings with him. They insisted on
addressing Nariman Vakeel as New Pappa.
The word stung
like a pebble each time it was hurled to his face. He made light
of it at first, laughing it off: "Thatís all ó just New
Pappa? Why not a longer title? How about Brand New Improved
But his choice
of adjectives was infelicitous; Jal told him coldly that no one
could be an improvement on their real father. It took a few
weeks for their mother to convince her children that it would
make her very happy if they dropped the New. Jal and Coomy
agreed; they were maturing rapidly, far too rapidly. They told
their mother they would use whatever word she wanted. Merely
calling him Pappa, they said, did not make him one.
wondered what he had let himself in for by marrying Yasmin
Contractor. Neither had come together for love ó it was an
arranged marriage. She had taken the step for security, for her
son and daughter.
And he, when he
looked back on it all, across the wasteland of their lives,
despaired at how he could have been so feeble-minded, so
spineless, to have allowed it to happen.
But a year
after the marriage, into their lives had come the little
miracle. Roxana was born, and unhappiness had been thwarted for
the time being. With the quantities of affection lavished on the
baby, it was inevitable that the warmth of it should touch them
all. Love for their little Roxana had rescued them from their
swamp of bitterness, uniting the new family for a while. Six oíclock
approached, and Nariman began to get ready for his birthday
dinner. He had been waiting eagerly for this evening, to see
Roxana and her family, and as he dressed, that enchanting time
of his daughterís birth filled his mind.
started again after having let up most of the day. A new shirt,
Jal and Coomyís gift, was waiting on the dresser. He removed
it from its cellophane wrap and grimaced, feeling the starched
fabric. No doubt, it would bite him all evening. The things one
had to endure for oneís birthday. There were perfectly good
shirts in his dresser, soft and comfortable, that would outlast
thrumming of the rain a hammer commenced its noise somewhere in
the building while he fumbled with the tight new buttons. No one
considered the problems of the old and the frail, the way they
packaged shirts for sale with impregnable plastic wrappers, pins
stuck in all the trickiest places, cardboard inserts jammed hard
under the collar.
He smiled as he
thought about Roxana, her husband, and their two sons. Heíd
never imagined, delighting in her as a tiny baby, that one day
she would be grown up and have her own children. He wondered if
all fathers marvelled like him.
And if she
could have remained that little baby for a while longer? Perhaps
that one period of his wedded life when heíd been truly happy
might have lasted longer too.
Expected from Family Matters by
Rohinton Mistry, published by Faber & Faber, Pages 488,
Price £ 16.99.