September 9, 2008

The Floating Tomb

By: Murzban F. Shroff

Things hadn’t been well for a long time. He could afford to admit it now that it was all over, and he had returned home from the funeral, his mind starved of sleep. No tears, lamentations, or gaunt silences had marked his behavior. None of that or those solid chesty hugs friends give at times like this. Hug, hug, I am reaching out; hug, hug, I am receiving. It would have seemed like the ploy of an exhibitionist. Instead he had sat cross-legged while condoling visitors had flocked to where the corpse was—his wife once upon a time. He had sat looking down into his palms, in between the lines there, and tried to remain conscious of a deeper tragedy. He had been living with it for months. A twisted genius of a doctor in a wheelchair had held the report to the window and said, “This is the affected part. This is where we need to fight, in the months to come.” Silence. The doctor had expected them to ask: “Will we win?” or “The chances are—” He could see the doctor was ready with his answers. “We are going to try. Trust us. We hate losing. You have come to the best. We want you to know that.” Had he said that, had they allowed him to, then the swan song of the weak would have started in their minds: “We shall overcome; we shall overcome, someday.” It would have mocked like it had during their years of marriage, during fights, and in the aftermath of punishing, unrewarding love sessions.

They’d raised no questions, discussed no lines of treatment with the doctor. It was as if they needed to arrive at independent answers, to take stock of their lives, and to redefine their relationship now that there was no turning back. They were being forced to marry again, to unite in some unknown quarrel against life, and this time they were smarter. They would take their time, not give any answers, if they could help it.

“Thank you,” they said to the doctor and left. Shutting the door behind them, they stood gaping at the long white corridor, the low ceiling, the wide antiseptic floor. She thought it looked like a conduit to heaven, a tunnel into nowhere. He thought the tumor had to be named. “Two-headed monster” was what came to mind at that point. He gulped and swallowed the thought.

Home again—without her—the walls reminded him of his own life: the paint clinging to the plaster by a thread, holding on, like he had all those years. There was no heaviness in his heart, no guilt, no sadness, and that in itself was sad. He had mourned all these years, hurting over the death of their relationship, the slow poisoning of love, the burial of promises made and not kept. But today was different: He’d come home without the fear of a female conspiracy rising to greet him at the door. He took in a breath and heard it rushing through his lungs. He relished this, his new freedom.

* * * *

There used to be three of them: wife, older daughter, younger daughter. He would watch while they fought over the television, its remote control, and its soaps. Who would succeed in eliminating whom? Who would inherit the business? And who would get to keep the man: wife, mistress, or the faithful ex?

As if there wasn’t enough tension within their own walls that they should bring other dramas home? Right into their living room, a medley of histrionics, furious, and so predictable that you could be mouthing the script, shedding IQ points, getting dyslexic without knowing it. While they watched their soaps, he thought of asking if he could switch to the cricket match. India was batting and Tendulkar was going in; looks like he was going to drub out the Pakis. He badly wanted the Pakis to lose. Not that he hated them any more than they deserved. Just that he believed at the heart of every Paki was an anti-India terrorist. Given a chance, the Pakis would missile India off the map. So he wanted to see them crushed, annihilated. But ask, and the bat would fall. He knew what they would say. “Why can’t you get another television for the bedroom? Why can’t you spend more freely? Why must you be such a kanjoos?” For a while he would wonder: Was he one—a miserable, parsimonious wretch? Was he denying them a decent standard of living? A better life, nicer comforts?

He would look around and think not. He was putting three meals on the table. He was clothing them, educating them, paying the society bills, the electricity bills, the phone bills that ran into fearsome four-digit figures thanks to all the gossiping they did. How could they accuse him of being a tightwad? Times were tough. Age was against him. He wished he’d kept his job. At least that would have kept him out—not “out” as in “out of the woods” (yes, that too!), but as in “out of the house.”

His daughters had patterned themselves after their mother. She had invited them to witness their fights and to listen while she wept out her regrets later. They drew their own conclusions. Daddy always makes Mummy cry. Daddy always says no. Daddy always bangs the door and leaves. If Daddy loved them, he’d have kept his job. Or taken another one. He’d have gotten a fancy car, position, perks. He’d have taken them for nice outings—birthdays, dinners, holidays overseas. He’d have brought them surprises like other daddies. But Daddy didn’t care; he had excuses for everything, including himself.

He couldn’t understand why they needed things like a flat-screen television or a cell phone with a camera. He couldn’t figure out why they wanted to shop at designer stores when there were bargains to be had by shopping off the streets. He said he was educating them, teaching them to stand on their own feet, just like his father had taught him. But all he could see in their eyes was disbelief and suspicion, as if he were there to thwart their dreams.

By the time they started college they had begun to look like his wife, sound like her, and they carried a wish list that was endless.

“Shaina’s father has bought her a bike, and he’s promised a car for her 18th birthday.”

“Pash is going to London this summer; her father said the exposure will do her good.”

“Suniaya is having her birthday at Mykonos, she’s getting a D.J. from Goa.”

“Tanya and Vandana have joined up for jazz ballet. Why can’t we as well?”

His wife would say, “You will be lucky if your father can see you through college, if he can pay your tuition fees on time. I dread the day when I have to ask your Nanaji for help. And that day is not far off, I tell you. It’s just our luck we’ve got a man who can’t take us for holidays or to good restaurants, whose hand freezes each time he has to spend. Now Shaina’s father is what you’d call a real family man. He knows his responsibilities and meets them well. Or Pash’s—you can see he only wants the best for his family. Or Sunaiya’s pa—look how smart he is, getting his membership to that new club. But your father? Everything is an extravagance to him, everything becomes a burden. How I wish I hadn’t married him. But how to know? I was young and naïve, and you never know till you actually live with someone.”

When she would say things like that, compare him to other men, other fathers, he would hold his breath and swallow his last bit of man-pride. He would keep his eyes frozen on the newspaper, that last noble barricade in the war of the sexes.

During his good days, he had saved for their future. During their bad days, he had turned conservative. But how to explain to them about the great midlife crisis, when everything you touch fails and you wonder whether you ever had it right, whether you were ever meant to make it at all?

How to talk about those failed ventures—the slimming aids, the Korean mattresses, the vitality drugs as effective as Viagra at one-fourth the price?

How to explain that some wagers don’t work out? That some investments go up in smoke? And that the deeper you forge into your dream of entrepreneurship, the more you realize a sucker is born every minute? How to explain you’ve lived with that nightmare in your head, night after night? That you’ve woken with the sheets wet, a pounding in your heart, the trauma of a tired mind torn from its dreams?

Because he couldn’t talk to them, because he saw contempt in their eyes, he embraced the Great Indian Sense of Detachment. He took it from the scriptures and immersed himself in meditation and prayer. The scriptures gave him all the explanations he needed. They told him about past life sins, against him, by him, and this way they put his accounts in order.

His attitude toward his family underwent a change. By not responding to their barbs, he convinced himself he was developing no new karma, no new aversion, instead he was buying insurance for his next life. He began to look upon them as co-passengers on a hapless journey, debtors from a past life, persistent, irritating, but necessary for the purification of the soul.

Just when he thought he had it all figured out, the two-headed monster turned up. It raised its head, first one, then two—one through every window, one through every door. Everywhere he looked it was thirsting for attention, consuming time and money, reminding him he wasn’t made of stone, that he could feel her anguish and her pain.

Locked in battle with the monster, the bad memories faded. He was reminded of his vows: Thou shall be a true life partner; in happiness and in sorrow, thou shall stand by. He had stood by, opening his mind and pocket to every little avenue. If there were a root in Tibet, he would get it for her. If there were a powerful puja, he would have it performed by her side. If there were a temple that could promise a miracle, he’d take her there. Indonesian Reiki, Kairali massages, Benarasi ashes. “What more can I do?” he would ask unhappily. She would smile from her bedside, place his hand against her neck, and say, “Go on, use your imagination.”

* * * * *

Now he was alone at home, his daughters stationed at their maternal grandparents’ house. From the balcony where he stood he could see the rocks, the sea, and the dargah—its beautiful white dome, minarets, and latticed walls. The tomb had been built to enshrine the memory of Haji Ali, a prosperous merchant who had given up his trade, renounced his wealth, and embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Rumor had it that he had died on the way, and his body was placed in a casket and set afloat, with a request that he be buried where the casket landed. The tomb was constructed 500 yards into the sea and was connected to the shore by means of a causeway. During high tide, the waters of the sea would wash over the causeway, giving the impression that the tomb was afloat.

The way to the tomb was fraught with interruption. Beggars and lepers held out their hands; they collected successfully. Hawkers plied their wares. They too were successful. Balloonwalas and pepooriwallas tempted the children; the fathers hesitated and reached for their wallets; the mothers continued walking. Young fakirs brushed at the pilgrims with brooms. With one hand they held out the lapels of their shirts and said, “Baksheesh please, for brushing off your sins, for dispelling evil energy that comes uninvited.”

He watched all this with a sense of calm. The view was soothing. The house was the result of his father’s foresight. He had bought it during the Emergency, pouring his life savings into 1,300 square feet of sea-facing expanse. What folly, what stupidity, his family had said then. The real estate market wouldn’t recover, they’d said. Not while the country was ruled by a prime minister who had led India into her darkest days.

He thought of the prime minister and her father, how they had been poles apart. He was a freedom fighter, an idealist to the end, and she one who’d brook no dissent. Now he and his father? He sighed. How similar they’d been, how unimaginably close.

Even as a young boy, he knew he’d be the one to stay with his father; his brothers had little in common with the man. They couldn’t understand his Spartan ways, his righteousness, his idealism derived from the speeches of Gandhi, Nehru, and Patel. But he had grown up at his father’s knee. He had listened to all his father had to say, and made up his mind that if ever there was a hero, he was not to be found in storybooks or in the movies, but in his own house.

His mother was a quiet, frugal woman. She spent most of her time in the kitchen or in the temple. Her family was her life. She loved his father and worshipped the ground he walked on. And because he was so much like his father, she liked him over his brothers.

They used to be happy till she came, his wife, that is. He had married her in the way most men in his community did: by means of a matrimonial alliance and with the blessings of the elders. The blessings wore out in two years. Or maybe the elders had got their horoscopes wrong. Perfect match, they had said. The stars will shine on them. Together they will wrench gold from inside the earth.

Instead they had torn each other’s hair out. Their fights were mostly about his parents. “Do you know what your mother did? She put on her bhajans while I was doing my aerobic exercises. She did this deliberately, the bitch!” Or, “Why can’t I cook meat if I want to? I am not forcing her to eat it. Why is she trying to control my life?”

Once she walked onto the ledge and stood there smiling, telling him about a note she had written, a note that would fix them for good. Once she had slit her wrists using the long carving knife that had come as part of the wedding gifts. There had been talk of a divorce in an age when things like that weren’t even mentioned. Twice the elders had intervened. Both times, his parents had apologized. His mother promised to give up on bhajans; the living room would be reserved for aerobic exercises. And she would allow meat to be cooked in her kitchen, but no beef—no, not that, please.

During phases of peace, the children were conceived. First was Ayesha, an irrepressible bundle, demanding yet unifying in many ways. Two years later: Rohita, quieter, fairer, gentler.

Each time after delivery his wife went to stay at her mother’s. She stayed six months and froze when he mentioned her coming back; she’d fall sick promptly, falling into fever, into delirium, which was not good for the baby, not good for the flow of milk, worse for their relationship.

The trouble had started again over the girls’ upbringing. She didn’t like what his parents were doing—the prayers they taught, the songs they sang, the nurseries they recited. She didn’t want the girls to know their language, their customs, their gods and goddesses. Their handling was wrong and regressive, it could damage. “Do I look damaged?” he asked. “Don’t make me say it,” she said, grinning like a prizefighter with the advantage of size.

Rohita was four when she asked, “Papa, is it true that Dada and Dadi don’t love us like Nana and Nani do?” He didn’t need to probe to know where that came from. He understood the larger design, the selective presentation of facts. He waited for his wife to come home, shut the girls in his parents’ room, advanced, and without a word struck her across the face. She scattered on the bed. He lifted her by the hair and slapped her hard across the mouth. She began to bleed and wail, and he remembered finding her grief unconvincing, her face ugly. In that instant, he ceased to feel for her. As his wife she had died, he said. She said she felt the same. She wanted to leave at once, to take the girls away, to file a police complaint, to tell his friends, his colleagues, his boss how low he could fall. She would expose him for what he was: a dirty wife-beating scumbag. She would take him to court, fake charges of dowry harassment, drag his parents in. It would please her to see them in court.

When they realized she was approaching hysteria, his parents had stepped in. His father apologized, saying he knew that he and his wife were responsible for their problems. In this day and age, to live with a son and his wife was asking too much. It was foolish on his part to think that a joint family could survive. He asked her to forgive him. “We will leave,” he said. “We will move to a rented flat, so you can work out your marriage.”

Hearing his father, he was outraged. If anyone had to leave it should be her. He couldn’t turn his parents out. It was their home, their pride. They had lived here most of their lives. He couldn’t see them leave it. Besides, it wasn’t even their fault. The fault was his, for having married the bitch. She should be the one to leave. “Enough!” said his father, raising his voice to its loudest. “This is not what I brought you up for: to throw your wife out, to hit her. Have you seen me lift my hand to your mother? Or deny her her rightful place? Have you ever heard me talk about breaking up my family? If you have the slightest feeling for us, we ask that you listen. I want you to think about your children. Right now, we cease to matter. It is your marriage that needs your attention.”

His wife sobbed in his mother’s arms, and his mother patted her back, saying, “No, beti, no! All things will pass, all things will improve. Think of your blessings, the lovely children you have.”

She wept inconsolably, saying she wanted to get away from this prison of a house, get away as far as possible. His father looked at her and said, “No, beti, it is us who will go. This I promise.”

His father rented a one-bedroom flat in an old building at Princess Street. It had a dark entrance, a steep flight of stairs, and a chawl-like arrangement of rooms. Each floor overlooked a quadrangle where the tenants stored old furniture, newspapers, and broken gadgets. Sometimes the tenants came out and fought over things that were missing. There were beams propping up the building, a sign that the repair board would come in to reinforce the structure. Till then the rents were cheap.

Water was a problem. It came two hours a day, five to seven in the morning, and had to be filled in steel drums to last through the day. Sometimes there were shouts from below if the taps were left open too long, and sometimes there were blockages in the pipe, in which case the flow would drop to a trickle.

When that happened, his parents would go to the temple and take their bath there. They would go by bus, and would be sweating by the time they got back.

His eyes filled with tears when he heard this. “Forget the deposit, Papa, and move back. Please come back. You don’t need this at your age, not when you have your own home by the sea.”

“But don’t you see? I can have the Lord’s darshan this way. I can cleanse myself in his home, under his supervision,” his father had joked. “There is always some good in every problem.”

That was the greatness of his father. He could adjust to any situation, meet any crisis smiling. And with him was his mother, unquestioning and unshakeable in her faith.

He knew his parents missed their home by the sea. They missed the view, the expanse, and the clean fresh air. They missed him most, and the girls who had filled their lives with joy. Yet they stayed away and rebuilt their lives under a sagging roof.

* * * * *

Two weeks after they left, his wife had taken money from her parents and changed things to suit her tastes. She got rid of the old sofas, the cupboards, the bookcases, and the many little placards his father had put up: Waste not, want not. A fool and his self-respect are soon parted. Less is more. The greatest wealth is happiness. Hanging on the walls, the placards had offered a foundation on which to rest his life’s purpose. When she had got rid of them, he felt she was getting rid of his family legacy, his youth—all that was good and treasured, all that had brought him peace. He was exiled to a place he didn’t know, to which he didn’t belong. Yet he didn’t say a word, for he had promised his father he would make his marriage work.

His parents had rebuilt their lives. No vacations, no pilgrimages. Walks on Marine Drive. Low-priced vegetarian restaurants at Girgaum. And—this hurt him the most—medical treatment at government hospitals, for there was not enough money left after buying the one-bedroom place.

* * * * *

How could it be, he now thought, that the house that had once brought him so much joy was reduced to a place of alienation and pain? Who was to blame: his father who had left it, he who had allowed it, or his wife who had altered it? Too many questions and no clear answers. And no one to advise him—his father dead, his mother following two months later.

There at the window, with the ocean as his witness and the dome of the tomb pointing skyward, he became aware of a deep and widening gap—between the sky and the earth, between heaven and hell, and between all who lived and welcomed this chasm into their lives. He saw the cancer not as a cancer, but simply as another sign of this widening gap. What did it matter what it was, where it came from, how it grew, and to what degree? It always won. In life, as in death, it did.

The sky turned dark and misty. He could hear the waves lashing at the tomb, tall breakers grinding their fury in foamy, glint-eyed malice—and yet the walls withstood their ravages, a fortress to those who couldn’t earn their living, a mecca to those who brought it their hopes and prayers.

He gazed at the tomb, which glowed with a soft white light, a pillow against an endless sky. He saw the pilgrims making their way back, cautiously, holding each other to steady themselves in the face of a stinging spray, on a path that was narrow, rocky, and slippery. In the midst of them, he saw a blind man playing his flute, a melody he couldn’t hear, but for which he could see the pilgrims slow down and reach for their purses and wallets.

“Death is the best vengeance for life,” he thought, “and the best punishment for those who don’t listen, listen with eyes of hope and longing. But I am not going to give you that pleasure,” he told his wife, looking upward. “I am going to start with our daughters now, and I am going to pull and fight and win.”

Moving to the phone, he dialed his in-laws’ house and waited with tense breath for the click of the receiver. He’d feel strange, like a teenager on his first date, asking his daughters out to dinner, but if they refused, why, he’d simply order them. The thought left him smiling.

-Murzban F. Shroff is a Bombay-based writer. His debut collection of short stories, Breathless in Bombay, was published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press.