The Earth at Her Feet
I no longer remember why, and I no longer remember exactly when, but at some point when Shoni and I were still in school, me in the early years of lower secondary, Shoni still in the primary section, maybe because Mummy was in the big hospital being operated for appendicitis, or perhaps because Dada was being slowly killed by a cancer far up in the crooked North, I really can’t remember why, but for some reason or the other (and I only know it must have been a solid reason because Mummy would never have left us alone with her otherwise), Shoni and I spent a night, just one night, at Baby Mausi’s flat. She was Mausi to Mummy, not to us, but we called her that anyway, Aunt, Aunty, Mausi, Baby, youngest sister of my mother’s mother, my Nani, who was the eldest daughter of the family, the Brahmin girl who ran away with a meat-eating refugee from the Punjab, but that is another story for another time. After Nani came Majhli Mausi, placid and pot-squat, then Aruna Mausi, thick-throated and full-limbed like a God, and finally Baby, Baby, who was not a mother, never a mother, but would very much have liked to be one, only ten years older than Mummy, her skin creamy-creamy white, hair as dark as coals, eyes ringed with kajal so thick they were like moon-suns that shot out black rays of smudge, small-time Bollywood actress, full-time radio show host, Baby, beautiful, so beautiful, pickled in alcohol every day, especially every night.
Amitabh Bacchan, she announced matter-of-factly that evening, he was madly in love with me, he was. Whoever had dropped Shoni and me off, Mummy or Papa or both, whoever it was, they were gone, her husband was away on one of his mysterious foreign tours, and we were alone with Baby Mausi in her shadowy living room, fairy lights blinking on bookshelves, low tables and sofas arranged erratically around us as if some giant had rolled them in like dice. We had a bird’s-eye view of the neighbouring building, a rich-peoples’ apartment block with a green pool and butter-yellow walls and cucumber-cool palm fronds. A purple evening was setting on the city, the homecoming traffic eleven storeys below crawled at a constant hum, and beyond it, there was the splashy sound of the sea that prays at the foot of the rich-peoples’ hill. Shoni and I were silent – I didn’t know what to say, we never discussed things like love and whatnot in our home, also I was remembering when Papa had done an imitation of Baby Mausi saying exactly those same words, Amitabh Bacchan was in love with me you know, and Mummy had laughed loudly but then pulled her mouth straight and said, don’t make fun of my relatives, she did work with him on the sets of so-and-so-Bollywood-movie you know. Shoni I think was silent because she was petrified; Baby Mausi was always declaring how much she wanted to adopt her, Guddu, she would say to Mummy, Guddu, let me have this little one, you already have Ritika, and the little one is such a doll, let me have her, I’ll make her a princess you’ll see, and Shoni would run crying from the room and the rest of us would laugh, but Baby Mausi would look after the little running-away legs the way you’d look at ice cream gone hot.
You don’t believe me, Baby Mausi said with cunning eyes, sipping her dim-looking drink while we clutched our Coca-Colas, but he was in love with me, and so was Vinod Khanna, that one, my girls, was completely lattoo, believe it or not he was, wanted to cut up his wrists for me he did, and he lives not far from here now, sometimes he sees me on the road and looks away, I suppose it is embarrassing for him to remember the things he said, silly man, and she laughed like glasses clinking and took another sip, her sips were so large she seemed to eat her drink. Have you girls had any boys in love with you yet, no? I suppose you are too little for it. She patted Shoni’s head absently, making her back into the wall, then turned to me, but you, at your age I had boys jumping out windows sick with their love for me, and she looked me up and down critically over the rim of her glass, you can’t have much luck with the way your mother dresses you though, and that awful, awful haircut, like someone placed a bowl on your head and chopped off whatever was left outside of it, and those glasses my God, do you really need glasses as thick as that?
Only for reading, I mumbled, self-consciously pulling my loose checked shirt down to my knees, but Mummy said I must always keep them on, just in case I lose them otherwise.
Baby Mausi made a rude sound that involved drink flowing rapidly down her throat, Mummy said this, Mummy said that, your Mummy my girl, she is a dear darling niece and I love her to bits, but she is an awful prude and a first-class bore to boot, pshaw!
We gazed at her, wide-eyed and silent, and the cars hummed and the sea splashed and the ceiling lamp buzzed, zzz-zzz.
She looked down her glass at us silently for a while, seemed to come to some sort of decision, let me dress you like real little women, come with me girls, and proceeded to sway, wind-like, towards her bedroom. We followed timidly, she stopped at the kitchen door on the way and looked at us, top ups? Well, I need one anyway. She pulled a tall, dark glass bottle out from between large tins and square packets of dals and things and poured herself a drink in a very sloshy manner, then gave us more Coca-Cola, also very sloshily, making sticky spots on our arms and our faces.
We continued to the bedroom, where there was a trunk made of tin and painted with brushes of gold. Baby got a key off a high shelf and unlocked the trunk, it took a while because she held on to her drink with one hand and had trouble matching the key to the lock with the other, but it worked finally, she said, ahah bitch, under her breath and then she was off, digging and digging with one hand deep inside the trunk, throwing out all sorts of clothes and shoes, a book or two, jewellery, they flew out of the trunk and around us, like rain made of cloth and jewels and falling the wrong way round. I got slapped in the face by some sort of silky thing that wrapped itself resolutely around me, and a fat coffee-table book got Shoni in the middle, woosh, so she had to sit down very suddenly with a balloon-popping sound. That made Baby Mausi place her glass on the window ledge and turn around, did I hurt you little one, poor little Shoni, but then she got distracted by the book, which had fallen open to a page showing Princess Diana in a bikini, wow, that woman, just look at her Ritika, look Shoni, look how she carries herself, so graceful, and we all looked at Diana gleam glossily and nakedly in the yellow light of the night, and my God she was so beautiful it took my breath straight away, it was a bit like seeing God. Then we went back to the trunk and excavated more, taking sips of our drinks from the ledge, and sometimes Shoni or I mistakenly got Baby Mausi’s drink and had to spit it out it was so bitter and disgusting, and sometimes she got one of ours and had to spit it out too, chee-chee so sweet, the things you young people drink, and after a while it all began to taste the same to us but not to her, judging from her offended squeaks, and when we’d finally dug to the bottom of the trunk we stopped, panting, clutching our favoured finds. I’d chosen a pair of very small khaki shorts, a choice Baby Mausi applauded heartily, wait, I have the perfect top for that, wait, wait, she said and emerged from the trunk a few curses and sips later with a light lacy thing in turquoise that was so beautiful my eyes went half blind. Poor Shoni was too little to find anything her size, but Baby Mausi raised her finger to the ceiling and said, don’t despair my little one, I know just the thing for you, and pulled out a t-shirt in bold black and yellow stripes and a dear white belt as thick as my pinky finger. As we looked at her, mystified, she gently pulled Shoni’s frock off the top of her head. Shoni didn’t flinch and she didn’t run, just stood there in her tiny white vest and navy blue underwear and let Baby Mausi slide the stripy t-shirt on to her, raising her arms obediently for the belt to be fastened around her bony little waist by the gentlest of shaky hands, hands like slight white birds on their first flight, and then Baby Mausi turned her around so she could face the mirror on the wall. We gasped. The girl in the mirror looked like she was out of a children’s fashion magazine, only we knew it was just little Shoni in an improvised t-shirt dress.
I felt shy to change in the room with the others there, but Baby Mausi said, come on, it’s your turn now Ritika, so I turned to the wall and climbed out of my baggy jeans and quickly pulled on the shorts, they really were short and very tight, oof, I had to wiggle my body all ways to get them to climb up my waist and then I had to breathe all the air in my lungs out so I could lock the button in place. Next I threw off my shirt and put on the lacy top so that I wasn’t naked for more than a second at all, and when I turned around I saw Shoni’s eyes big like Gollum’s and Baby Mausi naked in the middle of the room, glowing like milk, my God she was so stunning Princess Diana could kiss the earth at her feet. In one seamless movement, she turned around, and her breasts they turned with her, and her beautiful round bottom too, and the hair that had come undone from the bun atop her head, it stroked the pale skin on her back with dark, black fingers. She climbed into a blue-green silky kimono and began to look like a different sort of dream, then floated to the window ledge in her kimono and downed the rest of her drink.
My bare arms and legs appeared long and unsure in the mirror, poking out of me like deer limbs. Baby Mausi took off my glasses (in three attempts), messed up my hair and pulled bits of it gently across my forehead, and then the three of us looked in the mirror again, Shoni right at the front, me a little behind her and to the left, and Baby Mausi behind us both, her hands on her drink. Beautiful, Baby Mausi whispered, looking at us.
But we were looking at her.
She filled another drink into a Coca-Cola bottle and took us out into the night – she’d remembered we were growing girls who needed dinner to grow. Now her voice was getting slower and sounded like it was made of syrup, the way she would sound a few years later on the phone when Papa would have to go pick her up from the airport where she’d been thrown off a flight for being drunk-and-disorderly, the way she would sound another few years after that, when the drink had finally squeezed her liver with cancer and filled her stomach with liquid like clouds, but that night she only sounded a bit syrupy and then we went out. My shorts were very short, I felt like a woman wherever the night air touched me, it was incredibly exciting, on the way we passed some boys, boys from there, the south of the city, rich boys, cool boys, they actually looked at me twice, I made eyes at them and looked away as I thought pretty girls should do, but I was secretly so pleased it made my heart smile. On the way to the dinner shops, Baby Mausi suddenly had the thought that it would also be nice for us to get some jalebis and kulfi because she’d loved them as a little girl, so by inference we must as well, we walked almost a mile back the way we had come and waited by the halwai’s shop while the jalebis were squeezed out in tizzy little circles and fried. We ate kulfi-on-a-stick meanwhile, I ate pista kulfi, it was green as a pea, and Shoni ate kesar pista, which was more the colour of winter sun. Some rowdies passed by and whistled at us, Baby Mausi yelled at them to go fuck their sisters and mothers, I covered Shoni’s ears because she was still a little girl. When we’d received our hot sticky jalebis, we went again in the direction of dinner, the rowdies reappeared and began to follow us, but Baby Mausi knew the streets like the back of her hand, so we ran off down an alley and came out by the beach. The picnickers were gone, the sands were empty and shone in the light of the moon, and the little waves of the Arabian Sea came all the way from Arabia and lapped at our feet. Baby Mausi kicked off her high heels and laughed into the ocean, one foot at a time, we followed hesitantly, digging our bare feet into the wet shelly sand, and there we stood ankle-deep in seawater and ate hot-hot jalebis and gazed at the stars and the moon that gleamed rich and round, like a pie in the sky.