I never saw my mother’s face entirely, until that night. She never turned it fully towards me. Was she afraid, that she was ugly? But she was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I have watched her hiding behind the door. But I was afraid to tell her that. To people who came home, she spoke only in words, making sure the corner of her lips never went beyond a line to burst into a smile. A few times, she did it, I saw her jolting back, and her frightened eyes tumbling into another pair of eyes, her mother’s, my grandmother’s.
Ours was the house right at the edge of what people called a semi-urban village. A big area in front of it was always secluded from the rest of the world. People were scared to go over there. The area was full of snakewood trees, whose fearsome shadows subdued it. An asphalt road went past our brown trellis fence and rounded the area before heading towards the next town.
Before it turned into a semi-urban setup, ours was a typical village. A few of its surviving legends still mystifies us. One was about the snakes’ abodes in the shadow of the snakewood trees; huge anthills, camouflaged into brown igloos. We, the infants in the village, grew up listening to the bedtime stories in which the reptile world and human world were in constant rivalry. And as heroes and villains, the reptiles held the upper hand. The humungous pythons, stomped about the area, conning the gullible men, mostly strangers into believing in their transient girlish beauty. And they squeezed out the body juice, from the bewitched victims to make blood soup. The Cobras and the rattlesnakes swished along in pairs on tails, spitting poison into strangers’ eyes. And once the victim fell dead, they giggled, which echoed into the neighbouring areas like the howling of jackals. I heard the stories from my childhood friends. In my home, my mother never told me stories. And I never asked her.
She and I slept in adjoining rooms. In the middle of the nights, the air she gasped out stormed into my room with the vigour of the pythons that squeezed my lungs and body until I panted and puffed like a quivering chicken. The Cobras killed me many times in my dreams.
My mother sent me to a school, which had a flex board on top reaching the sky and below, a monster gate, which trembled while letting in rattling school buses that carried us in the mornings and evenings. I didn’t like going to school because I feared that when I was at school, a python sneaked into my home and squeezed the juice out of my mother to make blood soup.
But slowly, I liked it, because, when I reached home after the school, my mother made it a practice to ask me how was my day. Sometimes, she talked more.
One day, she said, our next-door neighbour had an oxen cart and that he rode it only at night. He had a car that he kept in the front court of his home under a plastic cover. But, I never saw oxen or a waggon in his compound but only two Saint Bernards. My mother said he kept the cart and the oxen in an underground cellar.
“Why can't he ride it during the day time,” I asked. She said, “Then everybody will know his car is useless and that will ruin his social status and bruise his ego.”
“What's ego,” I asked.
“False pride,” she said, “a person does something to better her social image in a fake way.” That wasn't making sense to me. If he wanted to better his social status, wasn't it better that he let people see his cart driven by the oxen, that was a rare thing. But, I didn't ask my mother, because I didn’t want to turn her away from the conversation.
Then I leant, my mother hated the world because she was angry, frustrated and depressed. Those terms I learned in my psychology class. Not that psychology was a subject for me, but our biology teacher got an awful taste for psychology. It was by a strange turn of her destiny, that's how she put it, that she ended up a science teacher. So, it was in her grudge and resentment against that destiny that she decided to undermine her learners’ interest in plants and smuggle into their heads ideas about the human mind. A human mind is like a cashew nut factory, she told us, spewing out streams of corrosive liquids, but unlike in the case of a factory, where it burned the worker's body, in human mind, it created anger and depression.
Sometimes, I thought our entire home was a cashew factory, with boilers and steamers always spewing out toxic wastes in all directions. My mother was the steamer and grandmother the boiler. And the smoke they spewed out had blackened our walls so that I couldn’t see anything inside my room unless I lighted a lamp.
My mother cooked savouries for a living. After the cooking, she packed them into sizable packets, and people came home to buy them.
My grandmother made a hobby out of throwing insults at my mother in front of those buyers. “She should have become a professor or a teacher that was if she hadn't spoiled her life and fell from grace, but now she is cooking. What a shame.”
One thing, I came to notice about my home was, there was no man. So, I couldn't help longing for the presence of one. It became part of my behaviour to brood over it and to expect a man stepping into my home lifting me up onto his shoulders and calling me, “My sweetie pie, I've been missing you.” That urge was so compelling that one day, I made a grave mistake. A man came to our home to buy fried banana chips. My mother was outside, and my grandmother was sleeping. He had a kind face. He smiled at me and stretched his hand towards me. Fascinated by his smile, I touched his hand. I felt it robust and warm. I felt a sort of connection with him. I stood up, and with a broad smile that expanded my chest, I called him, “Daddy.” Immediately, the man pushed my hand away as it was a bad piece of vegetable, and my mother pelted slaps and kicks on my face and body. My grandmother howled like a mad lady, making the prediction that I was already wooing men. I was four then.
“Why is my father not coming to attend my school meetings?” I asked my mother, one day, after much hesitation. She said he was a busy man, working in Dubai and would come home one day on leave to attend her meetings. Since then, I waited every day at our doorstep imagining a man stepping into our home. Almost every home in our neighbourhood had at least one member labouring in Dubai. So, on almost every day a car passed the asphalt road in front of our house, its carrier loaded with large travel boxes fastened with colourful nylon ropes, with a man's name printed on it in big black letters. But no such car came to our home and parked in front of it. That was how I got jealous about my friends to reject their narrations about the goodies, dresses and trinkets their fathers and brothers had brought for them from Dubai as lies.
A man cheated on my mother. I got that in the end, after assembling the jigsaw puzzle using the pieces my boiler grandma threw in front of me. That was when I began loving my mother. The pity, care and sorrow in my mind for her grew ten times, and I went heavy-hearted.
That night, I went into my mother’s room, she wasn't sleeping, I knew. I could hear the hissing of the steamer inside her, which I feared would gush forth into a storm and push me away.
“Ma,” I called her.
"Um, "she said.
“My father passed away,” I said. For the entire day, I was gathering strength to say that.
“What?” She jumped up, switched on the light, and sat up on the bed. Pulling me towards her, she wrapped her arms around me. She had never done that before. Jets of tears rained onto me, and I felt the heaviness of my wet hair on my shoulders.
“Yesterday morning, he went to supervise the construction site. You told me he was an engineer?” My mother shook her head. At that moment, I saw a flash of smile blooming her lips. That was her first smile for me.
“He stepped onto the scaffolding; his legs slid on, and flopped onto the ground. His head burst like a pumpkin, and his body floated in the pool of his blood.” She held me stronger. I could feel the waves of anger crashing against her inside and sloshing around in gentle ripples. She held me tightly as though she feared I was going to run away from her.
“It came in the news,” her calmness told me she wasn't bothered about my reasoning and that she had complete trust in my words.
“I didn't call you to watch it because you were busy in the kitchen,” I went on with my reasoning.
I didn't know how long she held me in her arms like that. When I woke up next day morning, I was on her bed. And she was sitting beside me and smiling. I had never seen her happier than before.
Next week, she told me, “I want to take you to a better school in town. I want to get a job there. I want to go away from this dark space and its snake stories.”