Illustration by LIZ PYLE
The remains of the feast
Rukmini, aged 90, did not behave quite as you would expect
an old Brahmin widow to behave in the twilight of her life...
A short story by Gita Hariharan.
The room still smells of her. Not as she did when she was dying, an overripe smell that clung to everything that had touched her, sheets, saris, hands. The room now smells like a pressed, faded rose. A dry elusive smell. Burnt, a candle put out.
We were not exactly room-mates, but we shared two rooms, one corner of the old ancestral house, all my 20-year-old life.
She was Rukmini, my great-grandmother. She was 90 when she died last month, outliving by 10 years her only son and daughter-in-law. I don’t know how she felt then, but later she seemed to find something slightly hilarious about it all. That she, an ignorant village-bred woman who signed the papers my father brought her with a thumbprint, should survive; while they, city-bred, ambitious, should collapse of weak hearts and arthritic knees at the first sign of old age.
Her sense of humour was always quaint. It could also be embarrassing. She would sit in her corner, her round plump face reddening, giggling like a little girl. I knew better than to ask her why; I was a teenager by then. But some uninitiated friend would be unable to resist and would ask her why she was laughing. This, I knew, would send her into uncontrollable peals. The tears would flow down her cheeks and finally, catching her breath, still weak with laughter, she would confess.
She could fart exactly like a train whistling its way out of the stations and it gave her as much joy as a child would get when she saw, or heard, a train.
She was cheerful and never sick. But she was also undeniably old, and so it was not a great surprise to us when she suddenly took to lying in bed all day a few weeks before her ninetieth birthday.
She had been lying in bed for close to two months, ignoring concern, advice, scolding and then she suddenly gave up. She agreed to see a doctor.
The young doctor came out of her room, his face puzzled and angry. My father begged him to sit down and drink a cup of coffee.
‘She will need all kinds of tests,’ he announced. ‘How long has she had that lump on her neck? Have you had it checked?’
My father shifted uneasily in his cane chair. He is a cadaverous-looking man, prone to nervousness and sweating. He keeps a big jar of antacids on his office desk. He has a nine-to-five accountant’s job in a government-owned company, the kind that never fires its employees.
My father pulled out the small towel he uses in place of a handkerchief. Wiping his forehead, he mumbled: ‘You know how these old women are. Impossible to argue with them.’
‘The neck,’ the doctor said, more gently. I could see he pitied my father.
‘I think it was examined once, long ago. My father was alive then. There was supposed to have been an operation, I think. But you know what they thought in those days. An operation meant unnatural death. All the relatives came over to scare her, advise her with horror stories. So she said no. You know how it is. And she was already a widow then, my father was the head of the household. How could he, a 14-year-old boy, take the responsibility?’
‘Well,’ said the doctor. He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Let me know when you want me to admit her in my nursing home. But I suppose it’s better to let her die at home.’
When the doctor left, we looked at each other, the three of us, like shifty accomplices. My mother, practical as always, broke the silence and said, ‘Let’s not tell her anything. Why worry her?’
But when I went into her room that night, my great-grandmother had a sly look on her face. ‘Come here, Ratna,’ she said. ‘Come here, my darling, my little gem.’
I went, my heart quaking at the thought of telling her.
She held my hand and kissed each finger, her half-closed eyes almost flirtatious. ‘Tell me something, Ratna,’ she began in a wheedling voice.
‘I don’t know, I don’t know anything about it,’ I said quickly.
‘Of course you do.’ She was surprised, a little annoyed. ‘Those small cakes you got from the Christian shop that day. Do they have eggs in them?’
‘Do they?’ she persisted. ‘Will you,’ and her eyes narrowed with cunning, ‘will you get one for me?’
So we began a strange partnership, my great-grandmother and I. I smuggled cakes and ice-cream, biscuits and samosas, made by non-Brahmin hands, into a vegetarian invalid’s room. To the deathbed of a Brahmin widow who had never eaten anything but pure home-cooked food for almost a century.
Our secret was safe for about a week. Then she became bold. She was bored with cakes, she said. They gave her heartburn. She became a little more adventurous every day. Her cravings were various and unpredictable. Laughable and always urgent.
‘I’m thirsty,’ she moaned, when my mother asked her if she wanted anything. ‘No, no I don’t want water, I don’t want juice.’ She stopped the moaning and looked at my mother’s patient exasperated face. ‘I’ll tell you what I want,’ she whined. ‘Get me a glass of that brown drink Ratna bought in the bottle. The kind that bubbles and makes a popping sound when you open the bottle. The one with the fizzy noise as you pour it out.’
‘A Coca-Cola?’ said my mother, shocked. ‘Don’t be silly, it will make you sick.’
‘I don’t care what it is called. I want it.’
So she got it and my mother poured out a small glass, tight-lipped and gave it to her without a word. She was always a dutiful granddaughter-in-law.
‘Ah,’ sighed my great-grandmother, propped up against her pillows, the steel tumbler lifted high over her lips. The lump on her neck moved in little gurgles as she drank. Then she burped a loud contented burp and asked, as if she had just thought of it, ‘Do you think there is something in it? You, know, alcohol?’
A month later, we had got used to her new unexpected inappropriate demands. She had tasted, by now, lemon tarts, garlic, three types of aerated drinks, fruit cake laced with brandy, bhel-puri from the fly-infested bazaar nearby.
‘There’s going to be trouble,’ my mother kept muttering under her breath. ‘She’s losing her mind, she is going to be a lot of trouble.’
And she was right of course.
My grandmother was in the nursing home for 10 whole days. My mother and I took turns sitting by her, sleeping on the floor by the hospital cot.
The day she died, she kept searching the room with her eyes. Her arms were held down by the tubes and needles, criss-cross, in-out. Her hands clenched and unclenched with the effort and she whispered, like a miracle: ‘Ratna’.
My mother and I rushed to her bedside. The muscles on her face twitched. Then she pulled one arm free of the tubes in a sudden crazy spurt of strength and the IV pole crashed to the floor:
‘Bring me a red sari,’ she screamed. ‘A red one with a big wide border of gold.’ And her voice cracked. ‘Bring me peanuts with chilli powder from the corner shop. Onion and green chilli bondas deep-fried in oil.’
When we brought the body home – I am not yet a doctor and already I can call her that – I looked at the stiff cold body that I was seeing naked for the first time. She was asleep at last, quiet at last. I had learnt, in the last month or two, to expect the unexpected from her. I waited in case she changed her mind and sat up, remembering one more taboo food to be tasted.
But she lay still, the wads of cotton in her nostrils and ears shutting us out. Shutting out her belated ardour.
I ran to my cupboard and brought her the brightest reddest sari I could find; last year’s Divali sari, my first silk. I unfolded it, ignoring my mother’s eyes which were turning aghast. I covered her naked body lovingly. The red silk glittered like her childish laughter.
‘Have you gone mad?’ my mother whispered furiously. ‘She was a sick old woman, she didn’t know what she was saying.’ She rolled up the sari and flung it aside, as if it had been polluted.
They burnt her in a pale brown sari, in widow’s weeds. The prayer beads I had never seen her touch encircled the bulging obscene neck.
She has left me behind with nothing but a smell. I haunt the dirtiest bakeries and tea-stalls I can find every evening. I search for her, my sweet great-grandmother, in plate after plate of stale confections, in needle-sharp green chillies deep-fried in rancid oil. I plot her revenge for her. I give myself diarrhoea for a week.
Then I open all the windows and her cupboard and air the rooms. I tear her dirty grey saris to shreds. I line the shelves of her empty cupboard with my thick, newly-bought gloss-jacketed texts. They stand straight and solid, row after row of armed soldiers. They fill up the small cupboard in minutes.
The Remains of the Feast by Gita Hariharan, from In Other Words: new writing by Indian Women, edited by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, published by The Women’s Press Limited, 34, Great Sutton Street, London EC1V ODX, England, and used with their permission. First published in India by Kali for Women.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995