Well-brought-up

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I punished her on a Thursday. Sent her to her room. “No, I don’t want a hug”, I said, brushing past her outstretched arms, slicing off her sorry. I knew that that always hit her harder than a slap on the wrist. A rationing of my affections.

I’d come back home with a bag full of exam papers to correct. And a head that throbbed like the floor of the taxi that had brought me home. Twenty seconds from the taxi to the ground floor lift; twenty-eight seconds on the lift to our apartment on the seventh floor. Routine stuck to my skin, clammy and uncomfortable. I lugged everything into the lift – the bag of papers, the throb in my head, my clammy skin and the routine.

Inside the lift stood Mr Banerjee from the fourth floor, and Sheila from the sixth. Their eyes looked past me to see if I’d gotten out of a taxi, or returned home by bus. All multi-storeyed buildings in South Calcutta were full of such keen adjudicators. They weighed your choices – of career, clothes and transport and greeted you accordingly. As their approving eyes slid from the taxi back to me, I rummaged around my large tote, and found a smile and some small talk. “People must always think of you as well-brought-up”, my mother used to say. She died the year after Ira was born. But, as usual, she was standing in that lift with me. Looking over my shoulder. Making sure that I was being well-brought-up.

Subhash had already called to say that he would be late. As I rang the doorbell, I wondered what Chitra had made for dinner. Chitra was the ten-armed goddess of our house – she cooked our meals, cleaned every corner, bought the groceries, read our moods. She kept us from walking into each other.

Chitra had joined the family five years ago as Ira’s ayah. I went back to work after my maternity leave, and Chitra took over. She took over the little chubby arms and legs, the bald, fuzzy head, the raw belly-button, the smiles. And even now, she was Ira’s ‘Chita’ more than anyone else’s. Chitra’s fierce focus on Ira never wavered. Not while she boiled milk. Not when she arranged Subhash’s newspaper in the order in which he liked to read it, stock-market news on top. Not when she plumped the cushions and cleared crumbs from the carpet. Nor when she rushed off to get me tea when I came back home from work. In a way, everything she did was for Ira. The newspaper, the tea, the tidy house – bribes to ensure that Ira had a pair of relaxed parents who weren’t too tired to play with her before bedtime.

The lift stopped on the seventh. I walked out in my clammy skin, my headache tightening like a cheap tiara. The smile and the small talk were back in my bag, next to the essay papers filled with the meek imagination of the well-brought-up. When Chitra opened the door, I walked in looking for a way out. A way out of playtime; out of the exhausting energy of my five-year-old.

She’d been playing with the perfume bottle again. A vintage crystal bottle with a delicate glass butterfly on top. My mother had given it to me on my sixteenth birthday. I’d asked her not to touch it. “It’s not a toy”, I told her, time and again. Now, it wasn’t a vintage bottle either. Just pieces of broken crystal. That’s all I saw. All I wanted to see. I didn’t see her sad shoulders. I didn’t see the way her little hands trembled as she gave me the box in which she’d collected the fragmented pieces of crystal, like a box of shiny tears. All I saw was a way out.
“No, I don’t want a hug,” I’d said. “No playtime. No storytime. In your room. Now.”

At the time, my anger seemed to fit in so well with her crime. She had broken a rule. Had played with something that wasn’t a toy. (A bottle with a butterfly on top.) So I rationed my affections. Just for the night. The no-hugs-tonight night. She would be well-brought-up. Just like me.

Did he know that his eyes look like they’re made of glass? Store-bought, single-expressioned. Do all psychiatrists have such dead eyes? I don’t know what I’m doing here, watching this stranger pretend he understands. When everything he doesn’t say is dripping from the corners of his mouth and making a puddle on the table. He’s so ordinary. His rent paid by sad people who don’t sleep at night. Or by people like Subhash who think they can pay for a packet of normalcy.

I didn’t get time to bake her birthday cake when she turned five. I’d meant to. I had everything ready: a photocopied outline of a teddy bear and a recipe for a chocolate cake. And then, the day before the party, some students dropped by with Julius Caesar in their hands, and panic on their faces. The final exams were on. It was English Literature the next day, and they hadn’t listened to a word of what I’d been teaching in class. They didn’t deserve my help. But you don’t just turn people away from your doorstep.

“See if Ira wants to play downstairs, Chitra. I need to help these boys pass their paper.”

But, no one was marking me.

I wish you’d been looking over my shoulder then, Ma. When I was smiling at near-strangers, and attending to students who didn’t deserve my time. I wish you’d whispered in my head like you always do. And slapped me on the wrist when I cut generous portions of Good Manners, and served them up like a syrupy pudding, leaving nothing for the table at home. Didn’t you notice I wasn’t being bloody well-brought-up then?

We’re halfway through my hour. This is the point where he scribbles notes into my file. He has a lot to say about me, though I have had nothing to say to him.

At home, my silence bothers Subhash. He doesn’t know what to do with it. He soaks up my silence, lets it fester inside, tries to give it labels that he can recognise. And when he fails, he walks around the house quivering with a frustrated rage. He books me another appointment. Maybe this time the shrink will break through his wife’s inconvenient silence. “Three years, dammit”, he sobs into the phone. He sounds pathetic. Old.

When he was reading the newspaper this morning, I imagined myself shredding every page to bits, and stuffing them down his throat. I held his nose closed with my other hand. I watched him gag on the Sensex. Choke on an insider trading investigation. And all the while, he watched me with sad eyes. Not surprised, just sad. And even as his lower body began to jerk like a fish breathing air, that flat, sad stare never wavered from my face. His arms didn’t push me away. And in that instant, I abhorred him more.

I’ve spent so much time teaching her everything my mother taught me.

You would’ve been proud of me, Ma. “Don’t sit with your legs apart”. “Don’t take the largest piece off a plate”. “Don’t sing Hindi film songs”. “Don’t speak when two adults are talking”. “Don’t point at elders”. “Don’t make me say it twice!” Always the teacher. Like mother like daughter. Remember how you used to tell me – for every girl, her parents’ house should be like a finishing school? Finishing school. Finish. Finished. How odd that that is what they’re called, these schools where you’re taught to be well-brought-up.

Another expensive hour of sitting and staring. Why the hell are all these windows always shut? Does it make his patients talk more freely, this smug cosiness? Flowers on the table. Feng Shui magazines. Case histories locked tight in that drawer. Locked tight; yet all their little insanities and secrets float around the room. Some stick to the upholstery like soft, white feathers. I wonder what would happen if he opened one of the windows and let them out. He might be surprised. The insanities might float off somewhere where they’re considered perfectly sane.
Speaking is what seems abnormal now. My throat seems to have closed up completely. It feels thick with muscles, like an arm.

The day after the no-hugs-tonight night, I was on Exam Invigilator duty at the school. I rushed out that Friday morning, while Chitra was helping Ira into her school uniform. “Bye. Be good!” I said, as I pulled the door close, forgetting about the hug that was pending. She couldn’t have forgotten though; she had probably been waiting for it from the time she woke up.

The rest of the day had passed in silent exam rooms, where the air was thick with a collective anxiety. Three hours in the morning for the Geography paper. Another three hours, after lunch, for English Literature. Hours of walking up and down a classroom, checking for cheats. Being alert to sly coughs, and diagonal eyes. In my time, the body language of a cheater had been much more unsophisticated. Loud. Like repeated trips to the toilet. Now, it could be as subtle as a hand tucking away a strand of stray hair, a pre-planned signal. Like the way adults cheat in the big world. A wiser cheating that’s tucked beneath their bed sheets. Inside pithy excuses. In their lack of generosity, their lack of time. In rationed affection. A cheating that is more devastating than any copied answer in any exam hall.

I envied Chitra. She held nothing back. Not her affection, nor her time. She cooked more than we could eat. Cared more than we expected. Gave us more than we could ever return. And when she went to the market to buy fish, you could be sure that not a rupee of the change would be missing. She didn’t know how to cheat. Neither did she know the art of small talk and short smiles. Chitra remembers growing up in Bankura with a steady, gnawing hunger in her little tummy. There was never enough food to eat. She learnt much later, when she started working as our ayah in Calcutta, that one could eat till their bellies felt full. It was a strange feeling, a full belly, and one that she never quite got used to. Chitra’s mother knew nothing about finishing schools. She didn’t even think of sending Chitra to the free school in their village. There was always far too much to be done at home.

But I still envied her. I envied Chitra for her ability to conserve her energies and her affections, for those who mattered the most. I envied her clear sense of priorities. Her artless transparency. I even envied her childhood poverty – it had taught her that things often finished before you had had your fill. She didn’t keep anything for later.

I can’t come here any more. Not another session. Not another hour. I’m sorry. I hope you can see that in my eyes – the sorry I’m saying to you now. My throat doesn’t remember how to push out sounds any more, apart from the occasional cough or hiccup. Nothing feels more solid than this absence of sound. Like a structural wall that bends every nail you try to hammer in. Subhash says it’s been three years. I don’t know. And I didn’t mean what I said about sad people paying your rent. I know you couldn’t have heard it, but I thought it. I’m sorry.
I’m sorry. Sorry. Sorry. So sorry.

Chitra stayed on. I don’t think she knew how to leave. And even now, she holds nothing back. She looks at me with such guileless dislike, her dark pupils rimmed with accusations. I could not live without that. I couldn’t bear to be let off the hook. I need it as much as Subhash needs to do time in a wasted marriage. We need to live through the days.

Slaps on the wrist, Ma. Just like you taught me.

Pia Ghosh-Roy

About Pia Ghosh-Roy

Pia Ghosh Roy grew up in India, and now lives in England. She has worked in advertising as a writer, in cities like Calcutta, Mumbai, Bangalore and London. She currently splits her time teaching English, writing about food and life in her blog 'Peppercorns in my Pocket', and working as an artist and crafter. Pia forayed into fiction with this short story. Another was recently commended in the Words And Women Competition.

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18 thoughts on “Well-brought-up

  1. Pia, i could not , not read till the end at one gho, that captivating, you made my heart go out for Ira ..and that pending hug ! brilliant

  2. Like I said, can you do anything with less than something approaching your customary brilliance Pia? This is a very moving story; hauntingly expressed. There were many places I had to simply pause and take in the beauty of expression, but these few lines on modern day cheating in examination halls were too good to pass up without acknowledgement.

    ‘In my time, the body language of a cheater had been much more unsophisticated. Loud. Like repeated trips to the toilet. Now, it could be as subtle as a hand tucking away a strand of stray hair, a pre-planned signal. Like the way adults cheat in the big world. A wiser cheating that’s tucked beneath their bed sheets. Inside pithy excuses. In their lack of generosity, their lack of time. In rationed affection. A cheating that is more devastating than any copied answer in any exam hall.’

    What an awesome start to what promises to be another amazing foray for your many talents.

    • Vispy, what can I say to that? So
      very touched. Thank you, a few times over. I don’t know where this start
      will lead – but I’m very lucky to have friends like you who read what I write.

  3. Hi Pia, this is beautiful and so haunting, I suddenly went back to the daily evenings when I also carry clammy skin and headache with me home….take care

  4. A story very beautifully told, Pia, with a narrative and turns of expression crafted so well. The cheating paragraph is a delicious collection of words, as is the description of the emotions around the broken bottle of perfume, but there are many more besides those. I’m so glad I saved it for a time when I could savour it properly.

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