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Sunday
, May 19, 2002
Books

BOOK EXTRACT
Family Matters

Family MattersA SPLASH of light from the late-afternoon sun lingered at the foot of Narimanís bed as he ended his nap and looked towards the clock. It was almost six. He glanced down where the warm patch had lured his toes. Knurled and twisted, rendered birdlike by age, they luxuriated in the sunís comfort. His eyes fell shut again.

By and by, the scrap of sunshine drifted from his feet, and he felt a vague pang of abandonment. He looked at the clock again: gone past six now. With some difficulty he rose to prepare for his evening walk. In the bathroom, while he slapped cold water on his face and gargled, he heard his stepson and stepdaughter over the sound of the tap.

"Please donít go, Pappa, we beseech you," said Jal through the door, then grimaced and adjusted his hearing aid, for the words had echoed deafeningly in his own ear. The device was an early model; a metal case the size of a matchbox was clipped to his shirt pocket and wired to the earpiece. It had been a reluctant acquisition four years ago, when Jal had turned forty-five, but he was not yet used to its vagaries.

"There, thatís better," he said to himself, before becoming loud again: "Now, Pappa, is it too much to ask? Please stay home, for your own good."

"Why is this door shut that we have to shout?" said Coomy. "Open it, Jal."

 


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 father.

Jal tried the bathroom door; it was locked. He scratched his thick wavy hair before knocking gently. The inquiry failed to elicit a response.

Coomy took 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!"

Nariman rinsed 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?"

"Youíll drive me crazy," said Coomy. "My heart is going dhuk-dhuk, wondering if you collapsed or something."

"Never mind, Pappa is fine," said Jal soothingly. "And thatís the main thing."

Smiling, 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.

"Stop dreaming, Pappa,"said Coomy. "Please pay attention to what we say."

Nariman thought 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.

"Even with 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?"

Socks. Nariman 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.

"Shoes without socks? Like a Pathan?" said Coomy. "And see how your hands are shaking? You canít even tie the laces."

"Yes, you could help me."

"Happily 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 do?"

"Iím not going trekking in Nepal. A little stroll down the lane, thatís all."

Relenting, 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 stopped."

"A stubborn child, thatís what you are," she complained. "Should be punished like a child. No dinner for disobedience, hanh?"

With her cooking that would be a prize, not a punishment, he thought.

"Did you 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 thoughts."

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."

"You 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 Mosque riots."

"Youíre right," conceded Jal. "Sometimes hell does seep through." "Youíre agreeing with his silly example? said Coomy indignantly. "The riots were in the streets, not indoors."

"I think Pappa is referring to the old Parsi couple who died in their bedroom," said Jal.

"You remember that, donít you, Coomy?" said Nariman. "The goondas who assumed Muslims were hiding in Dalal Estate and set fire to it?"

"Yes, yes, 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."

"True," said Nariman. "The odds are in our favour." He resisted the urge to hum "Blue Moon."

"Just last 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."

"Which 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?"

"Oh, it 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 routine.

With his 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.

The bhel-puri 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.

Coomy opened the door and screamed, "My God! Come quick, Jal! Pappa is bleeding!"

"Where?" 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.

"How can you laugh, Pappa?" said Jal, full of reproach. "We are dying of anxiety over your injuries."

"Donít exaggerate. I tripped on something and twisted my foot a little, thatís all."

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."

"Oh!" 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."

"I agree," said Jal.

"Stop being idiotic, you two."

"And what 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 for you."

Nariman sat, 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?

"Listen to 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 allow it."

"Such lies!" flared Coomy. "You ruined Mammaís life, and mine, and Jalís. I will not tolerate a word against her."

"Please 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."

"But will 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?"

"No, no, 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."

Nariman held his peace, having spent the time usefully in unbuckling his belt. He now commenced the task of untying his shoelaces.

"If you 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."

"That is unnecessary," said Nariman.

"Look," said Jal, "Roxana is coming with her family for Pappaís birthday party. Letís not have any quarrel tomorrow."

"Why quarrel?" said Coomy. "We will just have a sensible discussion, like grown-ups."

Though Roxana 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 smile.

Palonji 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 Pappa?"

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.

Nariman 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.

The rain 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 him.

Over the 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.