It was a young and tiny family—a wife, a husband, a three-month old son. They moved into the apartment on the tenth floor of a building which was one of the original high-rises in Chennai.
There were six apartments on each floor around a central corridor into which the lifts opened. The corridor was dark, with two fluorescent bulbs that created a stale and stagnant light. But the apartments had large windows, which made up for the dimness of the corridor.
After the final boxes had been brought in by the moving men, the little family went up the lift. Radha, the wife, held her child against her chest and stood beside Mohan, her husband. The only sound was the tired creaking of the elevator chains.
When they stepped out, they saw light streaming from the open doorway of the apartment in front of them. In that light stood a frail figure, all of her reduced to the bare essentials: bone, skin, two white molars. She was wearing some kind of diaphanous sari that made her even more ethereal. She looked at them as they got out, her eyes distorted by very thick glasses, benevolent, curious. Radha smiled at her briefly, anxious to get into the apartment before the baby could wake up.
The next day, it was around ten a.m. There was a soft knock on Radha’s door. The frail figure they had seen yesterday stood outside. She held some embroidered cloths. “Wasn’t sure if it’s a boy or girl,” she said. “The building manager only said, a baby was coming.” Her voice was raspy as if there was no more moisture left in her throat.
“Boy,” Radha said, looking at her baby, chuckling on a mat on the floor. The old woman peered at him.
“That’s ok, he can still wear these. They will be good for him too,” and she gave Radha four little hand-stitched, embroidered shirt frocks made of the softest cotton fabric.
It was a regular visit after that; with something or other she had made or been given; custard, a bit of cake, a pomegranate, two coffee mugs, a little rug sewn out of rags. Aachi, that’s what she said everyone called her, was always careful never to overstay her welcome; also she tired easily.
Radha never saw anyone else except Aachi. It seemed as if no one else lived on that floor. Or maybe they were all working and left before she could even wake up.
Aachi lived by herself in one half of an apartment sublet from a Gujarathi family who had moved and now used the rest of the apartment as storage. Her son was with his wife and daughter on the second floor and every day, Aachi was grateful that either he, his wife, or daughter visited.
Aachi was from Jaffna; she had managed to escape to India, when her son married an Indian. Otherwise she might still be in a refugee camp somewhere or dead, don’t you know, she said, shot so fully dead that people who passed by would not even know that a body was lying there, and if no one was there to bury you, no neighbor, no cousin or an uncle, no friend or stranger was there to bury you, only your skeleton would be left, don’t you know, lying there all arranged in a living style of how bones are when they are alive. But mostly, Aachi would smooth out her sari around her and ask why was she even talking about those past matters.
One day, after Radha had settled somewhat, and had started full-scale cooking, she made chicken curry. Aachi knocked on the door. Her thin nose tilted up. “What a fragrance, the whole floor is smelling with whatever it is that you are making. Not every cook can create such a beautiful smell. You must have a special hand. Chicken, no?”
“Yes, chicken, please have some, Aachi.”
Aachi hesitated. Then, “I will get my plate,” she said and was gone before Radha could stop her. She came back with a silver plate embossed with a delicate floral pattern.
“I cannot eat in anything else,” she explained.
She ate like a little bird, a sparrow, her mouth pursed into readiness, just one tiny piece of a small half of a leg of a chicken, with a tablespoon of rice, but she ate with long, sustained relish, putting her two molars to maximum use, sucking at the bone with total concentration.
When she was done, she leaned back and said, almost in tears, “I have not enjoyed anything so much for such a long time. You are very kind.”
She took her plate into the kitchen to wash it, refusing to let Radha do it for her. “How deeply I have cooked,” she sighed. “How much food from my kitchen. The number of people who ate what these hands made! Neighbors, relatives, friends, passersby, strangers, beggars, servants, everyone, anyone at all.”
The kitchen had a back door that opened onto the stairway. As Aachi wiped her hands and looked at the shining surface of her plate, they heard loud voices.
Immediately, Aachi went to the back door and, putting her ear to it, she listened with great attention. One voice was that of a young man and the other of a woman, a sharp argument of some sort. Suddenly, there was silence followed by running footsteps, a thud and another interesting sound, like a suppressed shriek.
Aachi straightened and shook her head. “He’s at it again. One of these days, he’ll kill her, that’s what I’m thinking, and then what’s she going to do. I told her, so many times, don’t you know, I told her, son or not, if they’ve gone bad, we have to let them go.” Aachi pointed her thumb to her mouth, swayed and whispered, “All the time, every time I see him, he’s like that. She won’t listen, she’s a mother after all. If she had been a little firm in the beginning, things would have been different. But what with her life being uncertain as it is, dealing with that husband of hers. It’s hard.”
They lived on the mezzanine floor, just below the tenth floor, this mother and son, and, according to Aachi, the mother was a great beauty, a famous dancer, “Haven’t you heard, Shakunthala Rani, the Kuchipudi dancer, she was married to an industrialist, a cement factory man, from what I hear, a suspicious, distrustful, jealous sort of man who gave her so much hell, luckily he died and left her some money. But what’s the use anyway, the son has gone bad.”
After such an introduction, Radha became very curious to see Shakunthala Rani. One afternoon, when her husband was taking care of the baby, she made some excellently soft idlies and coconut chutney. She packed ten idlies with the chutney and went down to see her. Aachi was not wrong. Shakunthala was beautiful, even in her sixties. She had a dramatic presence. Her face was large, spacious, with a majestic forehead, a pronounced brow line, a somewhat aquiline nose, full wide lips. Her hair was almost completely white and was worked into a casual knot, with a few strands framing her face. Her lustrous eyes had a melancholic expression. Radha felt an instant involvement in that melancholy.
Shakunthala Rani talked about her dancing days; it brought a little light to her face. She walked Radha to a table with framed photographs. She picked up one in which she stood in a dance pose. “This is when I danced at the Kennedy Center, you know, in Washington, DC.”
Radha looked at the younger, slimmer, radiant Shakuntala Rani, and said, “Very nice picture of you.”
Shakunthala Rani smiled proudly. A door slammed somewhere behind and her whole manner changed, she was a different woman, her face stiffened and estranged. She thanked Radha for the idlies and hurried her out.
Radha returned home, unable to forget her brief visit. The very next day, in the evening, someone knocked on the kitchen door. It sounded more like a soft scratching. It was Shakunthala Rani. She looked disturbed, her hair lay undone around her shoulders. She said she had run out of curd and needed some for a starter.
Radha pretended not to notice her expression and filled a cup with curd. The baby was in a cradle in the living room and he began to cry. Shakunthala went to pick him up, her every gesture filled with yearning, her gestures all the more expressive because of her training as a dancer. Radha watched her as if she would capture forever the vanishing beauty of this woman holding her son. They did not speak. The baby too was silent, his eyes teary and dazzled. Shakunthala put him back in the cradle, thanked Radha for the curd, and left.
Radha mentioned this visit to Aachi. “It’s that son, I am telling you,” Aachi said. “One like that, just one like that is enough to suck out the joy in everything. He is sick, a mentally disturbed fellow. She is not facing the truth, that’s all. If there’s a wild animal, can we keep that wild animal in the house? Is that a wise thing to do? Who will suffer in the end?”
Aachi’s eyes moved restlessly behind her lenses, her mouth munched the air with intensity. Radha felt another shot of curiosity singe her thoughts. She wished she could see Shakunthala’s son for herself.
An opportunity came when she was at the mail box. A tall man stood there, looking at his mail, and when Radha neared he turned towards her. The resemblance to Shakunthala Rani was strong and with a shock Radha realized who it was. He smiled and held out an envelope, “This postman must be new, I think, Is this yours?”
Radha looked at the name, yes, it was her name, Mrs. Radha Mohan.
“Thank you,” she said, trying not to sound relieved that he was so normal.
“My mother said you brought the idlies. We enjoyed them very much. She tries to make them sometimes, but it’s not the same. I guess it lacks the authentic south-Indian touch.” He laughed.
Radha smiled at him, feeling a little disjointed. How could the same features which were so feminine on the mother be so masculine on him; a masculine elegance flowed even in the way he moved; a pleasant, handsome man, after all; what a pleasant voice, too, cultured.
They had been in the apartment for a little over a month, when Mohan had to go to Delhi on business. He wished Radha would stay with her parents while he was away. But Aachi said there was really no need for that. She came morning and evening to check up on Radha. She had begun a large project with rags and she said she was going to make wine for Christmas. It was July; if she started now, with all the fermenting and filtering, she would be ready just in time.
She had set up her filtering contraption in the center of her one room. She had several cheese cloths hanging on a line, a set of bottles, ceramic jars and glasses on a makeshift shelf. She explained her methodology to Radha who, exhausted by her squirming baby, felt a mild envy that Aachi could do as she pleased.
“I know how it is, but it will get better, really, it will,” Aachi said, surprising Radha. “Soon, he will go to school. Then, you see, you will be free. Anyway, people have heard I am making wine this year, they are already lining up for my wine, it is famous, don’t you know. No matter. Mind you, I am keeping one bottle for you.”
“No, don’t do that, Aachi. We don’t…” Radha started.
“I know, I know,” Aachi interrupted firmly. “I know you people don’t drink wine, but it’s good for you.”
Radha laughed and thought Mohan might like it. If he did, she wouldn’t mind having a sip herself.
On Sunday, Aachi came to show herself dressed up for church. She was going for the two p.m. service. She wore a grand red Kanchipuram sari and a white lace sleeveless blouse. Diamonds glittered in her ears and a little string of jasmine was wound around the scanty knot of hair on top of her head. She carried a silver handbag on her arm. She turned around and showed off the intricate gold thread work with a peacock motif on the border of the sari. In spite of her skeletal figure, Aachi looked delightful and festive.
As they stood in the corridor, admiring the sari, there was a commotion on the steps and Shakuntala Rani came at them, followed by her son with a knife in his hand. She rushed into Radha’s apartment. “Arjun has gone mad, he has lost it, he has lost it,” she repeated, in dry sobbing gasps. “What can I do, what am I to do. I can’t help him anymore.”
The son halted. He was unrecognizable from the last time Radha had seen him. His face was covered with a dry beard, his hair was dusty, his shirt was torn. He stood unsteadily, leaning against the wall and dragging his feet. The knife, it was only a bread knife, glittered mildly in the dim light of the corridor. After a brief assessment of the three women, he began to move forward and tripped.
Aachi put her hands on her hips and said to Shakuntala Rani, who stood behind Radha, “I told you, didn’t I, I told you this would happen, didn’t I? I knew it, I knew something like this would happen.”
The man, who was almost collapsing to the floor, heard her and that changed everything. He steadied and lunged; there appeared to be no doubt that he was going to use the knife on someone.
Radha felt if she could just shut the door on him, they would be safe. Or, if she could just execute the karate moves she had learnt in school… But her limbs were numb, the way they usually are in nightmares.
That nightmare metaphor extended to Aachi. She had the expression of one who has been prepared all her life. A transformation began in her shoulders. They rounded and her neck retracted behind her collar bone. Her arms clawed the air as she went down; she seemed intent to demonstrate what “on all fours” could mean. She pawed the ground, she swayed her skeletal hips, she crouched, she bared her molars; she howled with her head extending out of her neck, she growled, she yelped. It was a practiced performance, a ferocious dance in which she went from old woman to animal, from words to sounds, a great rabid terror.
The terror reached the young man; he was mesmerized, depleted, disemboweled by this performance; steeped into a cloud of impotence. Was this a hallucination of his drugged, intoxicated brain? He stepped and slipped. He went to the floor with his knife. Before he became still, he lifted his head and looked at Radha. It was a look filled with so much pain and helplessness that she moved towards him. Aachi’s hand restrained her. But the image of that pitiable face reached deep inside her, as if it would alter the source of her thoughts.
Stunned, she watched as the young man was tended by his mother and Aachi’s son, who had come to get her for church. They partly dragged, partly carried him, an unwieldy threesome that teetered dangerously on the steps.
Aachi straightened herself, her sari, and adjusted her mouth. She patted her knot of hair and made sure the string of jasmine was still secure. “Get me some cold water to drink, child,” she said to Radha.
After Aachi left, Radha shut and locked all the windows and external doors of the apartment. The silence that she had always found soothing was now uncomfortable. It was full of gasps, creaks, moans. She held her child close to her chest and prayed for courage. By nine p.m., she was done struggling. She packed a few necessary things, tidied the kitchen briefly, and left the apartment, willing that she should not run into Aachi on the way.
She should have listened to Mohan from the beginning and stayed with her parents. Now, if she turned up so late at night, her parents would imagine and worry and then she would have to explain. Explain what. Nothing, nothing, she could explain nothing; explain an old woman becoming an animal, a young man with a breadknife, an aging dancer who moved gracefully in fear.
In the taxi, on the way to her parents, Radha could hear her mother saying, How can we trust you to take care of yourself; see, look at the stories you come up with; no, no, from now on, whenever Mohan has to go somewhere, he needs to leave you and the child with us.
There was very little traffic on Mount Road. The warm breeze lulled her. She felt safe. She would say, she just felt like seeing her parents, that’s all. If she repeated it consistently and regularly, they might believe her. Then she would behave normally, she would gossip with her mother about relatives and cousins and they would discuss recipes and sari designs and they really, really would believe her.
When the taxi entered T. Nagar, the noise made her baby twist and turn, though he did not wake up. Radha adjusted her lap for him and looked out at the busy world of pedestrians, shoppers, street shops. It was good there was so much noise and people walking by, good that the traffic made the taxi go slow so she could see the people buying flowers, fruits, clothes, utensils, or drinking tea by the roadside.
A week later, when she returned with Mohan, feeling foolish, Radha came back into that night at the apartment; her wariness of Aachi renewed. She hurried into the apartment and busied herself with cleaning. Throughout, she listened for the door to be knocked. And when it was not, she wondered if there had been a sequel to that night, that night of the bread knife.
The next day, as Mohan left for work, Aachi stood outside. She held a small glass bottle.
“My daughter-in-law wanted some ginger garlic paste,” she said. “She likes it the way I make. I kept a little to give you.”
Radha accepted the bottle from her with some awkwardness. In her mind, she was alert for changes. She studied Aachi covertly, for traces of her performance, as if she expected her hands to have developed claws or hair; or, was there the chance of a tail showing at the edge of her skirt? She waited for Aachi to say: What happened to you, you disappeared without even telling me anything. But Aachi just continued her distorted, defenseless gaze.
So, Radha said with some effort, “I will make some chai for you, Aachi. Do you want some?”
“Yes, that will be fine,” Aachi said. “Is everything all right with the little one?”
Radha nodded, “Yes, he’s sleeping in the bedroom. I put on the AC.”
She went into the kitchen and set a pan on the stove with a cup of water and milk. Aachi normally had just a couple of sips.
“Your plant is dying,” Aachi said, indicating the hibiscus in a pot on the balcony. It had drooped with no water for a week. “You should have left it outside your door, I would have given it water. Never mind, maybe it will still come back. No need to keep looking at me like that, child. How else do you think we managed?”
“What is it, what are you saying?” Radha asked, once again surprised that Aachi knew what she was thinking.
Aachi did not reply. She pulled out a chair at the dining table and sat down. Her mouth twitched and her hands moved restlessly.
Radha looked in the bottom shelf next to the stove for her masala box.
“Don’t you remember, you put it in the shelf above the sink, last time?” Aachi said.
Yes, it was right there. Radha took out two cardamom pods and three pepper corns and powdered them with a pestle.
Aachi sat down. The watered milk hissed up in the pan, overflowed and hit the fire, which partially went out. Aachi rushed in and turned off the knob. She said, “You are still very disturbed, child. What am I to tell you?”
Radha put in two teaspoons of tea and the ground powder. She covered the pan with a plate and stood leaning against the counter.
Aachi returned to the table. She said, “Do you know, all the men in my village were gone, even boys as young as ten-years-old; when the soldiers understood how it was, no woman, young, old, crippled, pregnant, no woman was safe and they were supposed to protect us.” Aachi snorted. “It was no use, don’t you know, we were like chickens waiting for the fox to come. There was fear everywhere, no one could think. Then an idea came to an older woman. When evening comes, she said, we will howl, we will become wild animals and do wild things. Of course, we all laughed. But, after two more young girls were found in the creek, we were ready to do anything. We practiced, how we practiced, you saw, didn’t you, how good I am, we practiced every day; our village even got a name, it was the village of wild beasts and mad women. Who cares? Not one, not even one, was touched after that.” Aachi’s mouth curved with that triumphant memory.
Radha stirred the tea till it had a little whirlpool in it. It was a strong narrative, she thought, but it did not erase the lost bewilderment, the helplessness on the face of Shankunthala’s son; no, no one should feel such despair; such despair could not be tolerated.
She poured out the tea and brought the two cups to the table along with some Marie biscuits. She sat down in the chair next to Aachi.
“That’s terrible. Terribly sad to hear, Aachi. It’s all so terrible,” she said. “But I don’t think he meant to actually do any harm.”
“That’s how it starts, my dear,” Aachi said. “We think, soft-hearted fools that we are, that they mean no harm. Then when it’s too late, who gets hurt, tell me that now, who? Oh, no, I did not save myself through the war, through leaving my home, through settling here, all these years. To face that. Oh no, I don’t think so.”
“You shocked him a lot, you know. Poor fellow, I felt sorry for him, except that I was so afraid.”
Aachi shook her head. “You are too young, child. Plus, you have no experience of these matters.” She added vehemently, “And I hope you never go through such experiences. But we have to be prepared. That’s all I am saying.”
She dipped her biscuit into the chai and sucked at the moistened part. “My son wants me to go down and live with him. After seeing what happened that day, he is worried.”
When Radha looked troubled, Aachi said, “No, no, no, I told him, no, not now, nothing doing. The grapes are setting nicely. I don’t want to disturb them. And you, you will be all by yourself, too. No, I told him, I’ll think about it. Maybe next year.”