A Perfect Boon
At least it was two extra weeks out of school.
I packed my suitcase with quiet reluctance. In a few days I would leave for India with my parents and brother. We’d be there a month, over Christmas. I was upset over this, preferring to spend the holidays with my cousins like we usually did. We would alternate the visits. One year my family would drive to Chicago, the next year they would come to Toronto. Those Christmases were the best. I loved showing off my “American family” to my friends. They seemed so glamorous, exotic even. I felt famous by association just by being around them. Not this year though. I gazed out of the window at the cold December day with a long sigh.
I’d only been to India a few times before, of which I had mostly no memory. A vibrant image here, a pungent odour there. A few recollections come with detail. The sort of flashes in time that live inside us forever. Usually from childhood and effortless to conjure. The sight of my grandmother crouched low on the floor at the stove, her legs hunched straight up so her knees were level with her ears as she made kheer. The cows that ambled up to the window every morning, eyes dark and bulging, eager for the first roti of the day. They had seemed monstrous to me at my young age. The rich aromas of sandalwood, incense and spice that perfumed the air, at times intermingled with the stench of human waste and garbage gone putrid from the heat. This strange mix of scents would become familiar to me, and therefore oddly comforting in its ability to instantly transport me to childhood.
And a particularly vivid memory of hiding under a table at the age of four. I peered out from beneath, alarmed and sobbing while my parents, aunts and uncles screamed and laughed while throwing paint on one another. I hadn’t understood it at all. No told me Holi was a festival of merriment and joy. To me it had seemed chaotic and violent.
My father often went to India alone. When I was fourteen I asked to go with him. It was my first real memory of a land to which I claimed heritage but no attachment. The trip had been wondrous. Staying up late with relatives drinking sweet, steaming hot chai. Attending a cousin’s wedding as a bridesmaid. Riding in brightly coloured rickshaws through streets congested with what appeared to be the entire world all in one place. A raucous jumble of goats and cows, scooters and cars, shop keepers hawking their wares, children in bare feet with their parents, their faces and clothes coated in dust. All striving for, and always somehow just finding, space on a ground where there seemed to be none left.
We had travelled the 7 miles from the train station to my father’s childhood home in Aligarh on the back of a scooter, something my mother would never have allowed. When we reached the house, I’d asked him how much the ride had cost.
“20 Rupees,” he said.
“How much is that?” I had asked.
“About a dollar.” I contemplated this answer.
“That was a lot of fun for a dollar,” I finally replied.
But I was sixteen now, with other plans and priorities.
My mother, never one to knock, opened my bedroom door and walked in. “Which kurta do you prefer? “ she asked, thrusting out two sets of kurta pajamas for me to inspect. One a bright shade of mustard yellow, the other one a soft pale pink. What I preferred was jeans and a turtleneck. But I was grateful for the option of wearing kurtas, a far more relaxed form of traditional attire compared to a sari or lehenga.
“Or do you want to wear a sari?” my mother wondered suddenly. “No, you’re still too young” she decided herself before I could reply.
“The pink one.” I said.
Like all the others, this trip would demand the routine matters of visiting endless relatives and friends of my parents. Shopping for bargains on shiny copper pots and brightly coloured silk. A visit to the Taj Mahal. This time, a special ceremony was also being arranged for my brother Neeraj, who was fourteen. Yagnopavit was a Hindu ritual for boys around his age. It symbolized their rite of passage into more formalized education. “The Indian Bar Mitzvah!” I’d heard it referred to by several of my father’s non-Indian colleagues. To me it was yet another example of a culture that organized itself around reverence of the male gender. And while I too was expected to pursue higher education and enter a respected profession like medicine or law, in the end I would most be valued by my family for getting married, and my ability to produce children.
I recalled a similar type of ceremony when I was four and Neeraj was two. Another mental image preserved securely in my mind’s eye. It was his Mundan ceremony. We were sitting with my parents and several of our relatives near the banks of the Ganges. The water flowed from the Himalayas on one side all the way to the Bay of Bengal on the other. Parts of the sacred river shimmered in shades of turquoise or green. But here the waters were a yellowish-brown. The air smelled of ash. I watched in horror as my aunt shaved every hair off of my baby brother’s head. They talked and laughed with every tuft that floated to the ground. The ritual didn’t faze them in the least. And though he was in no physical pain from the act, Neeraj wailed at its terrifying outlandishness to him. And to me. I remember feeling the first stirs of fierce protectiveness as his sister, my primal instinct wanting to end the entire thing. Make it stop, I had thought, screwing my eyes shut tightly. The group chattered among themselves, oblivious and animated.
“He’ll be blessed with a full head of hair!”
“He’ll be blessed with good health!”
“His past life is behind him now, only good fortune ahead!”
We would pack many bags for the trip. Some were filled with things we would need, others filled entirely with gifts for relatives. Blue jeans, Adidas sweatshirts, running shoes, and an assortment of potions, lotions, and lipsticks from the drugstore. Simple but highly coveted offerings that punctuated the gap between cultures and the great irony of life in North America; That non-essentials are easy to come by while so many of life’s essentials remain inaccessible.
My mother would always pack one suitcase full of instant noodles, boxed macaroni and cheese, packages of powdered soup, and chocolate bars. The kind of food that travelled well and required no more than a cup of boiled water to make. These were for Neeraj and I to eat around the meals we would be served. She did this so we wouldn’t lose too much weight, because it was inevitable that we would develop a digestive infection at least once while there. We always did.
The flight was long and uneventful. We arrived at the Delhi airport late in the night and stayed overnight at the home of my father’s oldest friend who lived there. We took a car and driver to his family home the following day. My first experience of having a driver had seemed strange and elitist to me. But I quickly understood the necessity on my first road trip, as I watched people drive like the rules of the roads were mere suggestions. Aggressively passing cars in front, hurtling toward oncoming vehicles in the opposite lane before swerving back into their own lanes at the last minute. Like playing Chicken, I had thought to myself. Except here it wasn’t a game. Just regular life.
My grandparents’ house was a simple, single-level structure set behind a large and wildly unkempt garden. It consisted of five large rooms all directly attached to one another, without the hallways typical of American households to connect them, so you could walk directly from any room into the next. At the centre of the rooms was a large inner courtyard. There was also a separate room to bathe in, with faded blue tiles on the floor and a bucket to fill with water. The toilet sat in a dimly lit cell off to the side of the house, a cloud of flies buzzing around its single bulb. A heavy iron gate surrounded the property.
My Dadiji would sit most days in the first of the five rooms, looking out the window. At 83 she was frail. When she walked her waist hunched forward, and her upper body was almost parallel with the ground. For this reason she spent much of her time sitting or lying down on her charpai, a cot woven from waxy streams of mango wood and cotton. She was affectionate, wordlessly beckoning me to come to her with her crinkly hands, patting the spot next to her on the charpai, her gnarled skin tanned a deep shade of brown. She would ask me to comb out her long, tangled grey hair.
My Babaji was 86 years old but sprightly and defiant, his mental clarity admirable. He took his daily walks like clockwork, and his meals on a rigid schedule. He insisted on washing all of his own clothing by hand, even though the servants would have done it. He was both thought-provoking and provocative, approaching Neeraj and I randomly throughout the days with questions to which neither of us could ever offer up a satisfying answer.
On one particular day he asked me: “If God came to you and offered you one boon, what would it be?” I had to ask him what a boon was. He’d looked disparagingly at me for not knowing. “It means ‘wish,’” he said. I offered several replies but somehow, he found fault with all of them.
“World peace,” I’d said first.
“But organized conflict is necessary for progress and evolution.”
“That all people are treated equally,” I tried.
“But people are not equal so you cannot treat everybody the same way.”
And so on. Neeraj and I would compete with one another to come up with at least a passable answer, inadvertently pitted against one another for his approval. That was the effect our Babaji had.
After the first couple of days we grew bored. We would wake to the sounds of the hawkers outside the window, peddling the day’s fresh produce, have our breakfast of boiled milk poured over instant oats, then putter around the grounds of the house. Only Babaji spoke English and our parents were always busy with relatives. I noticed my parents would come alive in India, so different from the detached way in which they moved through life back home. Here they talked more, joked more, laughed more. They appeared wholly connected to their existence. They’re almost cool here, I thought.
So we were left to fend for ourselves for entertainment. We managed to make one friend with a boy around our age named Jitendra who lived nearby and who, whenever we saw him, was always smiling. Somehow between the two of us, we managed to teach Jitendra to play cards. This didn’t stop Neeraj from trying any way he could use the considerable language gap to trick him into losing, Jitendra always smiling blankly on. We would sit together in the bright sun for hours, playing crazy eights, gin rummy, and hearts.
One day, while Neeraj and Jitendra argued over who had the better rummy hand, Babaji appeared and walked slowly toward us. “What are you doing?” he asked. A simple enough question. Playing cards, obviously. But I thought carefully before responding, knowing that no simple answer would do.
“Relaxing,” I finally ventured. Surely this would be a favourable answer. A look of disdain passed across Babaji’s face. I flushed with heat, feeling embarrassed.
“What are you doing?” Babaji turned to Neeraj with the same question. It was my brother who finally came up with the win that day. He paused first, visibly nervous as he racked his brain. A minute passed. Then he smiled and answered.
We waited for Babaji’s response, breath baited and held. Even Jitendra stopped smiling, spellbound by the tension. Babaji stared for several long seconds, his eyes locked on Neeraj’s.
“Very good,” he finally said. Neeraj beamed.
I felt unsettled. I was glad someone had finally come up with an answer that could please Babaji but upset that it hadn’t been me.
The day of Neeraj’s Yagnopavit was sunny and unusually warm for that time of year. My mother and the servants bustled with preparations to bring all the elements together for the ceremony, which would take place in the inner courtyard. Fruit, nuts, ghee, and other sweet offerings were placed on the floor, the havan for the fire ritual was arranged in the centre, and everyone nervously awaited for the arrival of Panditji, who would conduct the ceremony.
In the midst of the buzz of activity was Neeraj, lounging on a charpai in a white silk pajama kurta, his hair neatly swathed behind a red turban. Chewing lazily on a stalk of sugar cane, he watched it all unfold. “Hey Sudha,” he said as I briskly walked through carrying a bowl full of mangos. I was wearing the pink kurta, my hair tied back in a loose ponytail with a white scrunchie. “You probably have to touch my feet as part of this thing” he jeered, referring to the custom of placing one’s fingertips at the top of another’s feet to convey respect. “Don’t worry, I’ll let you. It’s about time you start bowing down to me,” he mocked, laughing out loud to himself.
“Shut up,” I retorted. “Besides it’s the other way around, genius; you have to touch MY feet.” At this he became quiet.
“Sudha!” my mother said sharply, untwisting garlands of flowers in her hands. “Get me the Janue.” The Janue was a sacred thread Neeraj would receive during the ceremony which would be placed across his chest from his left shoulder, symbolizing his passage to enlightenment. It was actually three threads woven together, signifying three goddesses: Parvati for strength, Lakshmi for wealth, and Saraswati for knowledge. “It’s in there,” she said motioning towards a wooden armoire against the wall. I sighed as I crossed the room, wondering how anyone could be willing to take on a task as inconceivable as enlightening my brother.
I quickly found the Janue inside one of the cabinets and paused to take a look at some of the other treasures within. There was a stack of letters written in Hindi, a set of stainless-steel plates, a brass teapot, tarnished and forgotten, and dozens of old black and white photographs. I picked up a few, turning the fraying yellow edges over in my hands. In one of them stood a young woman around my age in a sari, her long black hair tied in a single braid, her face flat with an almost angry expression. Standing tall next to her in a Nehru suit was a man of a similar age and expression on his face. I knew this must be a photograph of my grandparents. As with all photos of my relatives at their weddings, including my own parents, I marvelled at how unhappy they seemed. In Canada marriage was usually considered a joyful occasion by those entering into it, even if many of them didn’t last long.
I was about to close the cabinet door when a particular photograph caught my attention. It was slightly larger than all the others and framed. I lifted it out so I could examine it more closely. It was a photograph of a young man. His eyes were gentle and kind, and he was grinning widely from ear to ear. I didn’t recognize him yet he felt oddly familiar to me. The mop of curly hair, the dark bushy eyebrows, the slightly-too-large nose I saw in my own reflection every morning when I brushed my teeth. I took the photograph to where my mother stood fiddling with the havan.
“Who is this?” I asked. My mother looked up, glancing at the photo.
“Where did you get that?” she asked.
“In the cupboard. Is this dad at my age?” I asked animatedly.
“No it isn’t,” she said hesitantly, her lips tight in the way she would get when she didn’t want to say much. “Put it back. And don’t let your Dadiji or Babaji see it.”
“Why not?” I persisted, now thoroughly curious. “Who is he?” My mother did not look up.
“He’s your dad’s brother,” she finally said.
“Oh. Which one?” I asked. I’d met them both before, but wasn’t especially close to either of them. The older one lived in India and the younger one was close by in Toronto with my aunt and two cousins. My mother paused slightly and then replied softly.
Who? I thought to myself. This name did not ring a bell. “Who’s Rajendra?” I pressed. Something was mounting inside of me, and my heart started to beat faster. I had a feeling of anticipation, or dread, I wasn’t quite sure which. Something instinctively told me whoever this was, he had been kept a secret on purpose. Finally my mother looked up.
“His older brother.”
“Where is he? How come I don’t know about him?”
We don’t talk about it,” my mother said sharply.
The words fell on me as heavy as water hitting the ground during monsoon season. We don’t talk about it. I felt my irritation growing. My family never talked about anything. At least, anything important. When my mother had surgery to remove an ovary a few years back, she had told us the night before her procedure, hours before checking into the hospital. And we never discussed our feelings about things. Especially difficult things.
“Why not?” I pushed. “Why don’t you talk about him?”
“Because” my mother replied, not answering in the slightest. “I don’t have time for this right now. We’re starting.” I put the photograph back in the cabinet. The knowledge of this other brother, this secret uncle, left me feeling strangely adrift, as though I had lost some assurance of my own identity through not knowing his existence until now. I joined my family for the ceremony.
We sat in a circle on the floor. Pundit-ji sat in the centre along with Neeraj, near the havan. The ceremony was long and boring. Prayers were chanted and offerings made to the gods, channeled through the fire of the havan. The sacred thread was placed across Neeraj’s chest. He touched my feet, visibly trying not to smirk.
Then we ate. A feast of oily pooris, savoury sabzis, and sweets. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Rajendra. I wanted to ask my father about him but the idea was intimidating. Who was he? Why didn’t I know about him? And most of all: Where was he?
The following day dawned sunny and bright, perfect for playing cards outside. Which is exactly what Neeraj, Jitendra and I did. As we played the neighbour who lived next door, Sharav, opened his window, shaking the dust from an old rug and waving. “Hullo babies!” he called out. I smiled. I remembered this neighbour from my last visit. He loved children and called all of them “Babies.” Then a thought occurred to me.
“Uncle!” I called out to him. “How long have you lived here?”
“I’m living here almost 40 years. This was my grandparents’ house, you see?” he said with a great deal of pride.
“Did you know my dad when he was living here? And his brothers?” I asked. Sharav’s eyes lit up.
“Haan, I knew your father! My brother and I, we would play gilli danda with your father and his brothers.” He recalled the memory with fondness, a childlike grin spread across his face.
“Was Rajendra there?” At this Sharav’s grin faded. He stared at me.
“Yes,” he said quietly and paused. “He was there too.” He said nothing more. I made up my mind.
“Sudha it’s your move yo!” Neeraj complained, uninterested in the conversation.
I found my father later that evening, sitting in the courtyard reading the Hindustan Times. “Dad, I found a picture of Rajendra yesterday. I know who he is.” We rarely did small talk in my family. He looked up slowly, his face unreadable.
“How?” he finally asked, the simplicity of one word conveying the extent of his curiosity.
“I found it while I was getting stuff for the ceremony. It was in one of the cupboards. Where is he? How come I never knew about him?” He said nothing in response, still looking stunned. “I showed it to mom. She said we don’t talk about him.” At this he bristled and his eyes sharpened into focus.
“What is she saying? Of course we can talk about him. Don’t listen to your mother.” My father was often fuelled by disagreement with my mother. In this case, I was counting on it. I sat down on the bottom step of a cement stairway that went up to the roof. He stared at me for a long moment in silence.
“Raj was 7 years older than me so I didn’t see him as much as your uncle in Toronto. He was sensitive and had a gentle nature. He would never tell on us or complain about things. Sometimes he played with us. Cricket, gilli danda, other games. My father was away at work for long periods of time. To us that was a relief, because he would terrorize us and beat us often. He was outrageously strict; everything had to be exactly as he wanted it to be. Sometimes he would be enraged with us for no reason at all. Raj saw the least of his temper out of all of us. Including my mother.”
He paused with a deep breath, then continued.
“When Raj was 16, he went to Kanpur for Intermediate Schooling. That’s what we did after high school to qualify for university. But nobody had arranged where he would stay. He lived for a short time with our father’s cousin in Kanpur, but they treated him poorly. So after a few months he moved in with our older brother, your Tauji, who was living in his college residence. Since Raj wasn’t a student at the college, he had to hide out. After some time it became too risky so he moved into another friend’s place. He was constantly moving around, never feeling welcome, all while trying to complete his studies.
“Did he want to go to college?” I asked.
“For us there was never the question of ‘want’, her father replied. “It was simply expected. And yes, Raj wanted to go.” He continued.
For his Intermediate electives he chose chemistry, physics and math. I think he wanted to be an engineer. At the end of Intermediate there’s a board exam for each subject. We were scored in the 1st division, 2nd division, or 3rd division. Anything below 3rd in any course meant you didn’t pass. Your Tauji had already scored 1st division in all his subjects. Although it wouldn’t happen until much later, I also scored 1st division. And our younger brother was already the top-ranked student in the province.”
That came as no surprise to me. My uncle was one of the most respected physicians in Toronto.
“Raj made 1st division for all his courses except chemistry. He didn’t even make 3rd. At first, he didn’t say anything to anyone. School finished in May and he came home. Since the results wouldn’t arrive by mail until June, he told our parents he had passed all his subjects.” He stopped for a moment, a frown passing over his face. “He was a very honest and sincere person, so it must have been very hard for him to lie.”
“Did they ever find out?” I asked.
“Yes. The results arrived in the mail. That’s how your Babaji found out.”
“What did he do?” I probed, hanging onto every word.
“He did what he always did. He had a way of making us feel his disapproval, like an anvil carried around on our backsides. He lashed out at Raj, for lying but mostly for not passing his exam. He told him he was a pitiful student. Worthless. Our mother didn’t criticize as much, but she wasn’t encouraging either.” I sat silently, waiting for more.
“Anyway he had a chance to rewrite the exam a short while later in July. If you fail a second time you have to repeat the entire year. I guess he…” here his voice cracked slightly. “I guess he didn’t think he could pass the second time around either.” He let out a sigh and then continued with a matter-of-fact calmness.
“It was late in June. Your Babaji was away for work again, but everyone else was at home when it happened. The servant, Dev, saw Raj first. He was throwing up, over and over again. Since Raj had taken chemistry, he had access to the school lab. When he came home for the break in May, he brought mercuric chloride with him that he’d taken from the lab and kept it hidden. That day in June, he took it.” I sat in silence, awestruck.
“My mother and grandmother were screaming. The rest of us were in total shock when we saw him. It was Dev who managed to hoist Raj onto his own back and carry him up the hill over there, to the main road. There was no trail back then, and no city nearby.” He paused for a moment, then continued.
“Somehow they got him to a hospital. My brothers and I followed. They pumped his stomach. Somebody sent a message to your Babaji, but there were no phones at the house so it wasn’t easy to contact him.” My father’s face shifted for a moment, as if needing to prepare for what he planned to reveal next. “Your Tauji told everyone not to tell our father that Raj had poisoned himself, just that there was an emergency. I remember turning to him and saying ‘Do you really think it will make any difference?’
“He arrived the next day. Both he and my mother did not go to the hospital. I think they were afraid to see him in that condition. So my brothers and I are the ones who stayed with Raj. He was in and out of consciousness. They removed as much of the poison as they could but mercuric chloride is hard to take out once ingested. When he was awake, he would mumble things to us. He was going to write his exam again, and that this time he was going to make 1st Division.
He died on the fifth day. He was 18.’
I did not move or speak.
“I can still remember the sound of my mother howling when she found out. Like a wild animal. My father had no reaction. Whatever he felt or didn’t feel, he simply didn’t show it. After the cremation, my older brother returned to school and eventually my younger brother and I did as well. Life went on. Our parents never spoke of Raj again.”
I was silent at his final words. I felt profoundly sad for so many reasons. And yet, I felt an unexpected sense of peace. As though my knowledge of this young man’s short life somehow allowed him to live a bit longer through me.
“Thanks for telling me,” I said. My father simply looked out over the courtyard into the darkness of the night.
The next day arrived like all the rest with a clear blue sky. Outside there was sun but the air was cool and crisp. I pulled a wool sweater over my head. We would head south later today to my mother’s hometown of Kurja. Although it was just 80 km away, the journey through the village roads would be nearly four hours long.
“Sudhs,” Neeraj popped his head into the room. “Jitendra is here. Last round of rummy before we leave?”
“Sure.” I welcomed the opportunity for a distraction from my many thoughts.
We sat in our usual spot in the front yard, at a round concrete table that was crumbling at the sides.
“You go today to Kurja?” Jitendra asked us.
“Yep,” Neeraj replied. “It’s all downhill from here Jitendra. We can kiss staying in this lap of luxury goodbye!” His sarcasm was lost on Jitendra whose cheery expression remained as blank and unchanged as ever.
I chuckled, thinking of the small town and the house where my mother was raised. My Nana and Nani’s house didn’t even have a toilet, just a slanted room with a small hole in one corner and a larger one in the floor.
I saw Babaji walking leisurely through the yard. I watched him for a few seconds, noticing the tight upright posture he managed to hold onto even at his age. I lay my cards down on the table. “Just a sec,” I said to Neeraj and Jitendra.
I walked over to Babaji, my heart rate matching the speed of my quickened pace. “Babaji. I have it. I have the perfect boon,” I said as I reached him.
Slowly, methodically, he turned and faced me. His eyes, turned a deep sapphire blue from age, bore into my own.
“Yes. What do you say?” he asked. I took a deep breath and answered.
“I wish Rajendra was still alive.”
Babaji’s expression did not change. He did not flinch. Not even the tiniest corners of his mouth twitched. A long moment passed, my nervous anticipation thickening the silent air between us. Aside from the pupils of his eyes, which slowly expanded, he appeared utterly unreadable. Finally, he opened his mouth to reply.
“Wishful thinking is a fool’s game.”
Without another word he turned around, and walked away.