Translating India: The Taste of Onion on His Tongue

When the sky deepens into shades of violet, I wait by my window. The street, so deserted in the afternoon, except for the mewling cats foraging in the bins, has come alive with bicycles jangling and auto rickshaws swerving around cars. I listen to the sounds of people rushing home. I smell dinners being cooked, a cloud of aromas hanging over the dusty streets – the clanging of metal pots and pans, the sizzle of spices, the waft of steaming rice – riding in the evening air.

I have nowhere to go. The last time I went out, I cremated my husband, and returned to this empty house. He left me when we were young and healthy and here I am, chained to this house by my inability to face the world. The wardrobe along with my silks and chiffons has been devoured by moths and mites. I wear this excuse of widowhood: a scrap of white cloth wound around my body. My body, once swelling like the mango in season, delectable, sweet, fragrant, has withered. Now the odour of my own decay clings to me all the time.

So I wait by the window, and watch other people. Especially him. His window is opposite mine. Just a sliver of street separates both our worlds.

They have been married ten years. He brought her as a bride to that flat. I was there, with the other women, ululating, showering rice and smearing vermillion on her forehead and welcoming her to her new life.

Last night he made love to her. The streetlamp made slanting patterns over their bed, and I watched the long shadows move on the wall. I gripped the sides of my bed and felt the tension in the pit of my stomach. His fingers, long like an artist’s, stroked me and his nails, trimmed every Sunday, scratched and made white marks on my skin. She moaned, and I cried, “Shut up, you whore. Disturbing the neighbours with your screams.” He shut the window with a bang. And I was left alone, unfulfilled, cheated out of my happiness, helpless.

He’s here. That’s the sound of his scooter. I shuffle to the kitchen, and warm my dinner. I heat up the lentils and rice, and pour them into a bowl. I slice an onion into four chunks and put it on a side plate. By this time, he is climbing up the five flights of stairs to his house.

Balancing the steaming bowl and sliced onions on the tray, I take my place by the window again. He’s removing his shirt. I cling to my dressing gown, smelling his sweat, my tongue outlining the sweat-circles on his sleeves. I taste the saltiness from his skin. He drops his clothes on the floor, and she picks them up after him.

She has found something in his trouser pocket. She is shaking it in front of his face. A bottle. It is the same story once again. A man needs his drink, especially if he’s married to a barren woman; ten years and no signs of a child. Thirty years, and the seed refused to bear fruit: I remember it only too well. So what if my body was oozing with lust, and my ripeness turned on the desire; the inside was a dry, wasted desert, where nothing could take on life. Those years sucked out our happiness. We made a charade of living together, knowing every single time the passion arose, there would be no result to those meaningless actions.

She is crying, and shouting at him. I hear her stinging words. They are an echo of mine. But I know better now; I know he needs it to forget what he cannot have. He takes a step forward and slaps her. I flinch. Forgive me, forgive me, I cannot help it. Don’t drink so much, it will take you away too. Like it took him. She moves away from him, face buried in her hands, shaking convulsively. He steps into the bathroom. Ten minutes. He’s going to wear the blue pyjamas tonight. The white pair is hanging on the clothesline outside the window, flapping in the evening breeze, dancing and teasing me to come and join him on that line. He sprays talcum powder on his back, his chest and under his arms. If only I could just reach out and touch his chest, and stroke it and lick the talcum powder, which looks like icing sugar. He combs his hair carefully, first patting it dry with a towel. His hair has thinned a bit more at the top. I want to run my fingers through and feel the moistness, and smell the freshness of his hair.

He looks at her, she is still crying. He wants to have his drink, but I know he has run out of Coca-Cola. She has forgotten to replace it. He is shouting at her, and she is trembling. She has to buy them now. He throws the empty plastic bottles at her, and she ducks. She goes out of the house and I sigh with relief. At last, I have him to myself for a while. I chew my meal slowly, and watch him cut onions. He likes munching them with his rum. I wonder what his breath would be like if he made love tonight. Pungent, acidic, sharp. I crunch into my onion, and chew slowly, letting the sharpness trickle down my throat. In the night, when I hear them move, I can whisper his name, and feel his pungent breath on my face, and taste the onions on his tongue.

She has returned. But she is empty-handed. She will never learn. He yells and she cowers. “Why, you stupid woman, are you messing up my evening?”

She turns away from him, and I can see her in the kitchen, stirring the pot vigorously, cursing him under her breath. He enters, with his bottle, and drinks it straight up. He then raises his hand and hits her from behind. I hold my breath. She nearly hits the pot bubbling with their evening meal. She turns off the gas and runs out of the room, while he staggers around, trying to control his movements.

Then he looks out of the window, his eyes turn to slits, as if peering to spot me in the shadows. He looks straight into my eyes. I tremble in the intensity of his gaze. I follow the movement of his lips.

“Crazy bitch,” he mouths and slams the window shut.

God at Your Doorstep

Photo by Sudhamshu Hebbar
Photo by Sudhamshu Hebbar

Bhama looked out of the window and saw he was still there, squatting under the mango tree opposite her house. He was decently dressed, though his mundu was dusty and crumpled. He wore a wristwatch and leather sandals. He had been there for two days. He didn’t look like a beggar. Yet, he sat there, hunger burning in his eyes.

She checked again in the afternoon. It was hot. Bhama fanned herself and muttered. The old man was now resting against the tree. There was a paper bag next to him, presumably food from some passerby returning from the temple. It was quiet outside. Only the parrots quarrelled with the crows in the mango tree. Most people were indoors, taking a nap. Bhama walked up to the gate. The man had tears in his eyes.

Achachan, are you alright?” She leaned forward and addressed him. He nodded then turned his face away. “Would you like some water?”

He licked his cracked lips and whispered. “Thank you, molle. You are very kind.”

“Are you lost? Where do you live?” Bhama asked. She saw a jute bag hidden in the roots of the tree.

The man shook his head. “I had a house across the river. But now this is my home.” He patted the dusty ground he was sitting on.

“What are you saying, Achachan?” said Bhama. “Have you got no family?”

“Oh, I had a family last week. A son. A daughter-in-law. Four grandchildren.” He had a faraway look in his eyes.

“What happened to them?” Bhama didn’t want to know the answer. It was such a common story these days.

“They didn’t have room in the house for me.” He was shaking. He held up his frail hands. “I built that house with these hands. Educated my son. Got him married. After my wife died, I became a burden.”

“Did they throw you out, Achachan?” Bhama said, hands to her mouth.

The old man glared at her. “Throw me out? I left. I still have two feet that will listen to my command.”

Bhama lowered her gaze.

“Would you like to have a wash, Achachan? And have a drink of water?”

“Would you let me inside your house?” The old man asked, raising his eyebrow. “I’m a stranger.”

Bhama hesitated. It was true. She was alone at home. Her father-in-law didn’t count. He lay in bed all day, unable to move. She thought of her prayers in the temple. This was her chance.

“You’ve been living opposite my house for two days. You are tired and old. I cannot turn God away from my doorstep.”

The old man sneered. “My son treated me like a God in his childhood. This wretched man in front of you is no God. Just a sorry state of a man.”

Bhama looked down at her feet. She didn’t she want him inside her house, but neither could she ignore him. She led him in and showed him the wash stand in the courtyard. She found an old towel she kept for the servant. She also got a fresh shirt and mundu from her father-in-law’s cupboard. She set out a plate of rice and meen kuttan.

“God bless you, molle, you are kind,” the old man said. He ate little and refused the clothes. “I will not need these.”

“Your son is ungrateful,” Bhama said. “After all that you have done.”

The man shook his head. “They had no choice. I am very ill. I don’t have long to live. I did not want to be a burden on them. I want to travel to Kashi and die there.”

After he had eaten, he shuffled back to the tree. Bhama went in to lie down for a while. The summer heat had made her sluggish and she welcomed her afternoon nap. When she returned to the window, he was gone.

A groan from the outhouse brought her back to reality. “Bhama, molle.”

She gritted her teeth and turned away. But the voice became persistent. They had moved him out because she couldn’t stand the smell. She saw the servant-boy hurry with a bedpan.

For the hundredth time that day, Bhama prayed for deliverance.

The Beasts of Eden

“Let’s go to the market before going back,” smiled Janet, setting her cup on the saucer with a clatter. It meant she was done and ready to leave – now. She glanced at David’s half-finished tea and a flicker of impatience passed her eyes. She sat there, rigid, and stared at his glass until he was forced to gulp down the contents. At once, the smile returned to her face and she walked out of the café into the sunshine.

[private]David sighed and tried to shade his eyes from the fierce sunlight. The heat was making his head swim. Rivulets of sweat coursed down his back and tickled him. This holiday was bearing down hard on him. Didn’t Janet realise they were not young anymore? He followed his wife out of the café and reminded her of the evening cruise down the Nile.

“Just a quick wander, and then we’ll rest”, she promised him and held his hand tight.

They weaved in and out of the shops and stalls in the marketplace. The shops sold everything: from ancient papyrus scrolls to alarm clocks that belted out Elvis Presley hits. Janet came across a perfumery that sold most of the well known brands, locally made, of course. Janet sniffed and declared loudly that she only used the real stuff. David averted his eyes from the shopkeeper who looked rather insulted. Working in the perfume counter at Boots gave her a substantial discount. David swallowed a smile. She would buy her own Christmas gifts with her discount card, gift wrap them and then he would ‘gift’ them to her. No, she didn’t mind this strange system. She was very practical minded for that.

David was rather proud that his wife was not the sort who craved after shopping and presents, like her sister. Always into bargains and sales and then into debt. No, his Janet was far too intelligent for that. She spent her money on cultural and educational things, like learning the Indian head massage, or this Egyptology course she was enrolled in back in Cardiff.

“Look,” said Janet, pointing to a tiny shop under a bougainvillea thicket. “It’s an antique shop. Let’s go in and explore.” She strode in, pulling David by his coat sleeve. He sighed. He really wanted to go back to the hotel and have a cool shower.

“Let’s be quick. We need to be fresh for the evening,” he reminded her again. But she was already lost inside the cavern like shop. It was dark and cluttered. Damp and mothy, David thought and smiled. He used to say that as a child, whenever he visited his grandmother’s place. There was a tiny window at the other end of the room and the sun streamed in from there. Dust motes danced and spiraled in their spot lit space. There were the usual papyrus paintings and jewelry. There were terracotta pottery and bronze statues of Egyptian Gods and pharaohs. The walls were covered in animal skins and there was even a perfect head of a stag.

Janet gasped and walked around the shop. She studied some of the hieroglyphics on the paintings and could decipher a couple of words. Her eyes shone with excitement. She held one painting up and told David what it symbolised. The shopkeeper nodded in appreciation and David beamed with pride.

“You are very clever, madam,” said the shopkeeper, his voice a deep baritone.

Janet tittered and fluttered her eyelashes.

“You are a very lucky man, sir,” he bowed and smiled at David. He caressed his hands and played with a huge ruby ring on his little finger. The stone winked at them when it caught the sunlight.

“Oh, she is a clever old thing, my wife is,” said David, taking her hand. “But she’s very modest. Won’t let you on to it, will you, love?”

The shop keeper cleared his throat politely and bowed to them again. He was a large man and he towered over them.

“Have a look around, my friends. Everything here is a hundred percent genuine.”

“Ta,” said Janet. “We’ll be here for a while.”

They wandered around, until Janet came to a glass cabinet opposite the window. She gasped as she looked inside. “Oh look, darlin’” she called out. This is absolutely amazing.”

David came around, and he too stepped back in amazement. On the shelves sat a dozenglass blown animals. They were small, about the length a finger, but they were exquisitely made. Each little animal seemed to be frozen in action. The artisan had captured the very essence of their being.

Janet pointed at the leopard. A golden sheen came through its translucent body. She could feel the fluidity of its movement. It was in a stalking position. The eyes mere slits, its gaze fixed upon the prey. The mouth was open just enough for a low growl. The tension in the limbs was apparent. It was ready to spring at the animal that stood sharing the same space. A deer. Long limbed and graceful. Innocently grazing, unaware of its doomed future. A llama looked on at the scene. Its wise eyes were sad. It knew what was to become of the deer.On another shelf there were a few zebras and wildebeests. They mingled together, but one kept a wary eye towards the lion, which lay languidly on his side. He had just had a big meal. You could tell that by the look of content in his eyes. There were some exotic parakeets, and a pair of sarus cranes engaged in a courtship dance. Their necks were entwined and their eyes half-closed in ecstatic rapture.

“These are beautiful,” Janet whispered. “But what an extraordinary mix of animals. They’re not all from Egypt, well, not even from Africa.”

“Indeed, they are not,” the shopkeeper intervened. “These are a very special collection. They are known as the beasts of Eden.”

“Oh, why’s that?” Janet asked, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the animals.

“Well, the story goes like this. About a hundred years ago, there was a woman whose husband was a sea-captain and she was very lonely. You see, he was sailing most of the time and she had no company to keep. So the husband, every time he came back from a voyage, he would present her with an exotic animal that she could keep in a cage to amuse herself with. Her collection grew and her menagerie became quite famous. But unfortunately these animals could not survive in this hot climate and they began to die. The woman became hysterical. She could not part with her animals. So to calm her, the husband brought a famed glass blower all the way from Italy to recreate them in glass. And here you can see his masterpieces. They only need a breath of life to awaken them.”

“What a story. What a history,” whispered Janet. “But then why would the family that owned them, give them away for sale? I’d never be able to part with them if they were mine.”

“True, true,” the shopkeeper agreed. “But then, you see, the lady was so possessed by her glass mementoes that she laid a curse on them before she died. She said that one must always look after them and cherish them as if they are alive, or else the family that owns them will have bad luck. But if they look after them, there will only be good fortune for the family.”

David rolled his eyes. Of course, one had to go along with the whole mumbo jumbo to keep the interest going. The shopkeeper sensed David’s scepticism and turned to face him.

“It’s true, sir. These animals were owned by 7 generations. They were all extremely lucky. Except the last two. They neglected their duties and great misfortune befell them. So much that the last family is now on the streets. They sold these animals to me and that is the only bit of money they have left for themselves to survive.”

“Oh,” Janet’s eyes widened. “What special looking after do they need?”

“Well, I am told to advise the buyer that they must buy it only if they respect these animals. They have a heart inside them. They must be fed and cleaned and revered everyday. You must offer them milk and honey twice a day, and keep them in a special place in the house. Facing the East, so that the first ray of sunshine falls on them at the break of day.”

“How much does this leopard cost?” Janet asked.

“Oh madam,” the shopkeeper shook his head apologetically. “They cannot be sold separately. They must be placed in this exact same order on the shelves. One cannot disturb their auras.”

“Ok, so how much?” she asked impatiently.

“One thousand US dollars.”

“Well, I never…” David started, shaking his head violently. “This is rubbish, this is a set up, Janet. Don’t get into this.”

The shopkeeper looked at his feet and kept quiet.

“Four hundred,” said Janet quietly.

“Jeez. Love, we cannot afford this.”

Janet brushed David’s arm away. She stared fixedly at the shopkeeper, her lips a thin line.

“Eight hundred, madam, no more. I’m sorry.”

“Four-fifty. It’ll be one burden off your shoulders.” Janet pressed on. “Also, I can look after them very well. I study Egyptology and I know how to honour the culture and traditions.”

“Where are we going to keep them?” David whispered urgently. “They need a special place.”

“Why,” she said sharply. “The nursery. We don’t have any use for that, do we?”

She always does this, thought David wearily. He shuffled on his feet and then reached for his wallet.

“Five hundred, and no more,” he said firmly to the shopkeeper and handed him his Mastercard.

“Oh, darling,” Janet hugged him and kissed his damp shirt collar.

The shopkeeper smiled. “The beasts are known to find the right master for them.”

Changes had to be made to their terraced house on Inverness Street. The ‘nursery’ that had waited with baited breath for its tiny occupant was quickly revamped into a sacred space. The Winnie the Pooh wallpaper was stripped off and a glass showcase bought from Ikea was installed by the eastern window. Janet started buying incense sticks from the Asian shop and organic whole milk from Sainsbury’s to offer to the animals. The beasts themselves seemed quite at home and they went around their business looking fierce and exquisite to all who came to visit. They were a big hit with the Egyptology class. They even had a session at home where Janet delivered a lecture on the history of the glass animals and the impact of Italian art in Egypt.

David never entered the room. Every time he passed it, he was reminded of all the money he had spent, wasted, on the animals and their upkeep. He let Janet meditate in that room for hours and clean them meticulously and feed them and hoover and change the flowers every day. It gave him the opportunity to watch TV undisturbed, and he was not complaining. She had given up watching Eastenders. It clashed with their evening tea, she told him. Amazing.

Then one day Janet was pregnant. At last, by God’s grace, wept David in sheer delight. Or maybe even relief. She hugged him and whispered that it was by the grace of the magical beasts of Eden that it happened, for sure.

David looked at her and laughed. “C’mon love, give me some credit. It wasn’t the leopard, for sure.”

Janet rebuked him, telling him not to make fun of the beasts. They were here for a reason. She believed in them and it paid off. Her prayers had been answered.

“You have to accept them into your life, David. They have blessed you with this baby. David, after seven futile years, a result finally. Can you not believe in it?”

David remained silent. It was better not to upset her now. But he would have to stop this nonsense from getting into her head. She would have to concentrate on his baby rather than all the mumbo jumbo she was involved in.

The pregnancy wore on. But at forty, it was difficult to get by each day without feeling her age. It became more and more difficult for Janet to carry on with the daily routine. Morning sickness and then an aversion to any strong smells prevented her from lighting the incense sticks again. What a mercy, thought David, not knowing that Janet knelt for hours, begging for mercy from the beasts for this neglect. Then her blood pressure shot up and she had to be hospitalised.

The doctors advised her to stay in hospital for further observation. Janet was distraught. The beasts could not go hungry. No, it was vital for them to be looked after, for the safety of the baby. She pleaded with David to return home and feed them for her sake. For the baby’s sake. For God’s sake, go.

Reluctantly, David left her side. He wandered absently around the home. Now I have to feed some glass menagerie, he muttered. He could just lie. He peered into the beasts’ chamber. The streetlights flooded into the room and the beasts glowed. The ruby-red eyes of the leopard glared straight at him, its mouth open in a snarl. David hesitated by the door. Ridiculous, he thought. They’re bloody inanimate, expensive glass objects that got here wrapped up in my underwear. Why should I care about them? But he couldn’t get away from the door. The eyes were on him. Hungry eyes.

Maybe just this once. For Janet’s sake. He shuffled towards the kitchen, the crystal bowls in his hands. He shoved each bowl of milk in front of the animals and scowled. Those creatures looked so life-like he felt a chill go down his back. They looked ready to pounce on their meal.

David shrugged and took the leopard in his hands. He studied the glass animal, turning it around, and felt the smooth cold body with his fingers. Damned good craftsman, he thought. Who can say it is a hundred years old? I don’t believe one word that shopkeeper said. We were suckered, all right. Just then, his mobile rang. David jumped and the animal fell from his grasp. It tinkled onto the floor and broke into two. David cursed and answered the phoneIt was the hospital. Janet was in a bad way. They feared she was going to have a miscarriage.

“I’ll be there”, he shouted into the phone and jumped up. Was he responsible? He had destroyed the leopard. Did it take its revenge in this way? He stopped. It was true then. These creatures did have a power. Look how quick it was to react. David knew how he could save the baby. Or even Janet. It was the only way.

He pounded up the stairs towards the beasts’ chamber and gathered the pieces from the floor. The leopard seemed to jeer at him. The other animals looked at him piteously. He was doomed, they seemed to say.

No, no, David shouted at them. I can fix it. I can. Please, oh God, please, don’t do this to us. We will look after you forever. His hands trembled as he searched for glue. He laid the broken leopard on the table and knelt before it in reverence.

I didn’t believe in your power, he whispered. Janet was right. I believe now, I believe in you. He worked deftly, sticking the pieces together. It’s all my fault. Why didn’t I listen to Janet?

The phone rang again. It was the nurse attending Janet. Where was he? They needed him there. They would have to do an emergency operation on her.

“I need to be at home,” he screamed into the phone. “That way I can save her. What? NO, no, I need to be home. You understand? They have the power to kill her. I have to save her from the beasts. I have to save her from the beasts…

Eventually Janet came home. They couldn’t save the baby. She had taken the news quietly and resignedly. It was never to be, she reasoned. She cleared away the beasts’ chamber. Dumped all the animals in a cardboard box and sold the showcase for five pounds. There’s no need to all this junk, she said. In the house, or in the mind. We’ll just live like normal people, David. Like a normal childless couple, that’s who we are.

David nodded and took away the cardboard box. He took it to his office, where he placed each animal lovingly on a table in his cabin. The leopard looked as good as new. Look, it was smiling at him. David winked at it. They had a different relationship now. They were good friends. They had saved Janet from certain death. And the baby? Well, maybe it was good for the baby too. Maybe they had saved her from something as well, who knows. Maybe it wasn’t her time to arrive yet.

He filled their crystal bowls with milk and lit the incense. For Janet’s sake, thank you, he whispered. Thank you. Thank you.[/private]

Susmita Bhattacharya was born in India and travelled around the world on ships before settling with her family in Cardiff. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University. She has published several short stories, and recently her stories have been accepted by Wasafari and Blue Tatoo for publication later this year.