The Memsahib of Mazagaon

The Memsahib of Mazagaon

Prashant Vankamamidi

Twenty days after Sanjay Gandhi’s plane crash, I handed the Russian lady an eviction notice at her allotted quarters. Though she had moved several times within the same building, she hadn’t left the Colonial Captain’s Angre Houses in the past three decades. She had arrived shortly after independence with her husband, a mechanical engineer with a penchant for ships. He had been hired by Mazagaon Dock Limited, now “Shipbuilder to the Nation”, to repair and repurpose leftover rubble from warships. A beautiful man with golden hair and unsettling brown eyes that in a black-and-white photograph she showed me were unmistakably their correct color; an Arabian nose suggested mixed parentage; and a brow that could have remained raised even as he was cremated. After his death, she chose to remain in his memory. Mourning and cloaked entirely in black, she haunted the city the way most widows of soldiers wished they could retrace their husbands’ last footsteps to perhaps collect the limbs that had once cupped their delicate chins and promised to return in triumph or tragedy. She never remarried, though many an Indian divorcee or widower, from Nizams and Rajputs to Politicians to Bollywood actors, had courted her. There was a rumor that F. Khan, even during his affair with dancer B.B., had been intrigued enough to pass by her quarters under the pretense of scouting for shooting locations. I asked her only once if she refused them because they were not European. She seemed more than offended. “After all this time, would I care?” she said. The second she spoke in Marathi, if I closed my eyes, yes, she could be any other Aunty tossing back a gourd and asking, “Is the word foolish written on my forehead?”

Lara Memsahib was an expert at buying proper gourds at the proper Bombay hour. Right when the vendors are about to sell at any price. When the humidity and black flies had beaten any ambition for profit back down to the level of survival. She escaped to the marketplace; me, following after her. It would only have taken a minute more to secure the door lock. When I questioned her about it, she said, “Why? What will anyone steal in a house full of nailed paintings?”

These paintings were worthless sketches made by her own father. She kept them for the sake of his signature. A muscular O followed by cursive “tis”. He signed his name in the same place on each canvas, right on top of the lapel covering the heart of the ancestor he “reincarnated” from dusty and fading photographs. That’s what they are, Sanjay, she said; painted photo albums on the walls of men and women whom she never met but carried their secrets inside of her. “Wasted space,” she spat. “Such utter waste.”

She inherited her desire to preserve and archive from her father. He had worked as historian for the Soviet Government. And his father, Memsahib’s grandfather, died as a dishonored assassin in the secret police following the purge. An aunt married and brought from Japan was murdered in her own bathroom after the third or fourth child died in birth; “We suspected her husband,” Memsahib said about her uncle. “Other women claimed his attention too often for any woman to bear. But he loved her, too. He fought to wed her.” To the wedding, the Japanese bride had worn a kimono with red blossoms. Otis had inverted the colors in the portrait so that she wore a red kimono with white blossoms; his name he signed in red in the flower beside her heart; the painting was displayed at her wake. “I still suspect the monks near our village,” Memsahib whispered. Monks lathered their tongues and the hems of their sleeves in poison. Lara Memsahib had discovered this fact about monks without needing to step foot inside of a monastery. Another painting, perhaps of a more distant uncle and aunt, both sitting on a bench in their garden, each had had a son out of wedlock; the uncle with his family’s ward, a village girl who later became a nurse in the war, and the aunt with a stable boy who had “liberated her by chopping her hair with fire”. The couple themselves had only one legitimate daughter. This daughter fell in love with both boys, her half-brothers, and when she discovered this truth, she committed suicide, but not before giving birth to a child – whose father everyone says is Jesus, but it is probably a misheard version of “Jesus only knows”. Jesus is not a common name in Memsahib’s culture. “It’s too arrogant to be named after a God or God’s son.”

These paintings themselves were arranged in long obnoxious columns from top to bottom, a centimeter of wall as the only margins between the ceiling and floor. I suppose, to a thief much like a bird eyeing a farmer’s crop, they might have been the requisite scattered scarecrows.

Persian carpets layered the ground in a way that would ask a thief to roll up all to extract one. She had them imported from Turkey and Afghanistan, where the weavers’ insured their knuckles with palm oil, not unlike the similar sense of preservation practiced by husbands in the driest parts of Rajasthan, men sparing their wives so that they may work in peace at the factory the next morning. Anger is compromised for the sake of productivity; for the sake of some dependable income, the sake of the artifacts sold now by the Gateway of India for German businessmen to bring home to their wives. She spat at that. It’s always the Germans that bothered her the most. Germans; no one can trust the Germans. Germans are deceptive. They stab their own. On other rainy afternoons, we smoked hookah in her living room and I would tell her the world was changing, but she’d wag her finger, no. Germans are weak. Germans are defeated by ankle-deep snow. What are the Germans known for, she’d ask me, except for the wars, Volkswagen vehicles, and Mozart? Or the gas chambers of Auschwitz, which consumed defenseless men, women, children, as if they were cows prepared for a kebab. Except cows still had meat on their bones.

*

By the Shirdi Sai Mandhir she prayed in every Thursday, she confessed her late father-in-law was from the mining and smelting town of Freiburg. His worldview had disapproved of her husband’s desire to stay in Bombay. To her father-in-law, Asia was a dump full of stale fish, and stale fish only become less palatable over time. The packages of spices Lara Memsahib’s husband shipped as gifts were received with a scoff. She could imagine his nostrils straining to fill his mouth with enough saliva to spit, and this spit once spat, left residue on a chin he’d wipe off with his fur sleeves. She did not miss her own fur coats. In fact, she wore only silk on her skin. A transparent silk that wrinkled. But her old dhobiwalla found himself inspired by her fashion and set up a side-shop to sew dresses like the ones he studied white women wearing in paintings on her walls, and later, in the albums she kept intact. Long draped gowns of white muslin and lace that were becoming more stylish in Mazagaon among the youth.

But the Indian preference for vibrant and neon colors – their tastes, her German father-in-law would scream on the phone – were all desperate attempts to hide a lack of content. And he had only extended this argument to include the “primitive religion” when he discovered Lara Memsahib had started performing some of the rituals for married women. “Idolatry takes them through the motions, but those sheep don’t have a philosophical thought in their minds. How does a wife’s starving insure her husband’s life?” Lara Memsahib convinced me her husband did not entertain or indulge these comments, though he perhaps agreed minimal designs and more muted tastes are appreciated only by a sophisticated palate. But he had embraced Bombay, and encouraged Lara Memsahib to do the same; after all, it had been her idea to relocate somewhere in the Asian continent. The choice had always come between China and India, and it was she who had been the one to choose India, while her father-in-law advised his son against listening to a woman’s intuition.

She told me she often prayed never to see her father-in-law again. The thought of his silhouette, upright, like he was prepared to march into the bathroom and release his bowels at a moment’s notice, with or without needing to, regardless of his having eaten, reminded her too much of her husband. But he was the only living relative who’d house her if she returned. Then, after she had unpacked and hung up her paintings and found herself settled again with some reluctance, he’d continue his torment of her. She had no honest answer for what this meant except that it could lead her to smother him one night or poison his soup. It would be the monks who’d have to help her with the latter. Did she need such karma to determine her next life?

Here, I wondered aloud if she wasn’t being a little more than unfair. To herself as well as him. If she wasn’t projecting into the past and reverting to the self that had known him. After all, it had been a decade since she had seen him, and that, too, under the circumstances of his son’s funeral. They must have both matured by then and might find, in their new selves, something compatible and forgiving.

“My dear,” she said, though I was half her age, and no longer anyone’s dear. A lover who had once addressed me as darling had long replaced me with a better man and was promoted to motherhood. Now she lived in the same house opposite me, and I heard her husband call her in the mornings to return to their room. In another few days, she’ll announce she is pregnant with their second child, the in-laws will feed her and the rest of the neighborhood laddus; I will be among the neighbors; I will grab two laddus. “If consecutive wars had not weakened Europe’s stamina, my dear, India might still belong to the British.”

She spoke without restraint, but gave me no clue as to when she planned to vacate the house. A loose deadline or tentative date would have satisfied my boss. I followed her back through the market, a fresh bunch of lady’s fingers and peppers in her satchel now, and to the wood door of Angre House, still waiting for an answer. My shadowing alone meant she must leave, but she seemed unbothered. I had come prepared to direct her to proper resources she could seek for the shifting; a list of contacts nearby, workers who I trusted needed extra money, and another list entirely of three places she could sleep for the nights before a flight carried her to Berlin. But so sure and steady was she that I began to question if my predecessors hadn’t been deployed to send the same notice over many years. When he passed the order to me, my boss had seemed more than flustered and advised I do this as soon as possible if I wanted to remain in my position. When angry, my boss cannot complete a sentence; his phrases alone communicate urgency.

Before her door, she invited me inside for a cup of evening chai and to stay for dinner if I like fried lady’s fingers. She had not yet recalibrated her cooking portions; she uttered “yet” with some hope she wouldn’t have to.

In the time I had been working under my boss, had he invited me to his house? To dine with him in a canteen? Even at lunch, he sent me to spy on the workers. A college graduate sitting among blue collars stained with dead skin and blood. I had paid for their chai and bought a packet of biscuits they could share. This was enough to win their loyalty. They started calling me Sir, and stood when I joined them beside the vendor, who also associated me with authority. On some occasions I intervened when crowds beat one or two of these men, who had tried their hand at a lady’s purse or necklace. I rescued them. And perhaps, out of loyalty for that, too, they listened to me. Later, when MDL colony residents accused me of manhandling Lara Memsahib, and hiring rowdies to threaten her, the complaining men and women pointed to these instances of my “friendship” with lowly workers as evidence against me. But I harmed no one who fed me. If I had known a mother, she’d have taught me as much.

Regardless, Lara Memsahib left behind her father’s paintings, her carpets, books, and glass hookah pipes. At first, I brought MDL workers to clean and claim the items they could pawn for a little cash. Then, I kept a painting. One of a woman with a blue rose on her lap. I wish she reminded me of anyone, though many of the men who witnessed me taking the painting said I had improper thoughts about Lara Memsahib at night. She went to live with the few remaining Chinese families near their temple in Mazagaon.

*

The last train entered and exited Dockyard Road. A violinist aboard released a restless tune into the city.

Dini Parayitam has an MFA in Fiction Writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, BOMB Magazine, The Iowa Review, and other publications. She was an Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. She is a Spring 2019 member of Kalakars Film Workshop in NYC. She is also working on her debut novel.

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