Like bursts of gunfire, the predawn screeches scatter the last of their unquiet dreams. Eyes still shut, she listens to the birds for a while, then mumbles a few words.
‘Hmm?’ he says.
‘The koel,’ she repeats, listlessly.
‘Isn’t singing…this year.’
He slips back into a doze. She turns her head towards him and opens her eyes. Through the netted door behind, the light seeping in is downcast. It is as if she’s looking at him, the whole of him, for the first time. A golden haze, everything out- of- focus, embalmed in silence. She takes a deep breath and directs her gaze to the sky. Its purple-tinted light is diffused and yet offers a calm certitude. The jacaranda trees are in bloom- three outside her window on the fourth floor, their crowns at eye-level. They are flowering all over the city. Nothing is ever lost, no one ever leaves us, and now, the dry, scholarly voice of her father echoes in her memory: Jacaranda trees are not native to South India, they came from Brazil, but can you imagine Bangalore without them? She pictures the roads unfurling under a canopy of mauve clouds. Wide-open roads offering freedom. Yet all empty- as if a giant sinkhole has opened up somewhere.
In the book, she’s currently reading there is a sentence: It is often during periods of climatic upheaval that we see dramatic new developments taking place in human history, proving once again that our species needs either fear (lack of resources) or greed (the promise of plenty) to propel it forward. Last night, as she was reading this sentence, it seemed especially meaningful. Even if it’s nothing more than staying indoors and washing one’s hands frequently with soap, surely, there is a purpose to being an eyewitness. It happened to us. Yes, we are being propelled forward, she tells herself, as she slides out of bed.
He is aware that she is up and moving, taking care not to disturb him. He maintains the pretence of being asleep. A few hours ago, he woke up suddenly and did something unusual –for him. He went to the kitchen and ate a banana. Though the skin was a pleasing golden yellow, the fruit was slightly raw and tasted starchy. There is a furry aftertaste in his mouth, a reminder of the dream that had sparked off the hunger pangs. In this dream there was a sense of urgency; he was in a hurry to get somewhere but kept getting delayed. Took a wrong turn, lost his way. Then, to his relief, he saw the white building with its long, silent corridors. Everything was exactly as he remembered it from decades ago, neat and shining, but he still felt odd, as if he no longer belonged there. He entered the vast dining hall with its polished wooden floors, arches and panelled walls. There were rows and rows of tables with the chairs tucked in. All vacant.
By the time she returns with the tray, he is out of the bathroom. He has shaved, the meagre strands of his hair are carefully slicked across the brown scalp. She hands him a glass of hot water with a teaspoonful of lemon juice in it. To boost one’s immunity, she’d explained, when the lockdown began. He consumes it in one shot, winces at the sour taste but says nothing. There are coffee and digestive fibre-rich biscuits on the tray.
‘It’s perfect morning,’ she says. ‘Shall we sit out on the balcony?’
She takes a deep breath, lets it out. The strings holding her together are about to snap. ‘I think I will,’ she says evenly.
The scene outside looks like a storyboard illustration- a man calmly walking his dog, a pair of joggers running abreast at a steady pace, a youth in loose shorts and black vest, collecting fresh milk from the milkman waiting at the main gate. Farm fresh milk is easily available in this neighbourhood.
Sipping the strong black coffee, she scrolls through the messages on WhatsApp and reads again the latest bulletin from the Residents’ Association. The milkman has appealed for assistance with the cow feed. As there are residents who have volunteered to help him out, there are also new guidelines identifying the Dos and Don’ts of cow feed. For instance, no onion, citrus fruit peels or mushrooms, no eggshells or chicken bones, no teabags. They have generated a variety of responses.
In principle, I endorse cow feeding. But I already have three buckets reserved for different categories of waste – and now one more?
No compulsion. It’s a nice gesture. These are hard times for everyone. We need to think beyond ourselves.
My flat faces the dairy farm and all I heard yesterday afternoon were cows. Please feed cows. Any cow. Every cow.
The cow is of the bovine ilk. One end is moo, the other milk.
Haha. Good one!
Really! This thread is testing my sanity.
The apartment complex is seven years old, but the occupancy is just sixty percent. It is only an hour’s drive to the city centre, but it has much open countryside surrounding it to be called the suburbs. When they first moved out of the city, about a year ago, she took to calling it a place of no address, wilderness, boondocks, back-of-beyond. Oh, but we love it here, she would add, posting pictures on Facebook of the vineyards, roadside shrines, lily ponds, dragonflies and moonrises that the friends in the city liked. Yet she could not get over the feeling that they secretly pitied her, those city friends she’d assimilated with, over the years. Starting tenuously, as acquaintances made at the gym, flower arrangement workshops, art exhibitions and book readings that she habitually frequented, these friendships, too, became a habit. They supplied a gloss to her adult life, not unlike the makeover she’d seen the city itself acquire: IT hub, malls and pubs, the roads streaming with foreign cars, the array of food flavours, the clangour of different tongues.
After she moved away, her friends asked: When are you coming next to do your hair and face? Let us know so we can meet you for lunch. Their concern reminded her of the anxiety one displayed for endangered communities. It was an accommodation they made for her, she suspected, for they were usually late for the lunch meet-ups, leaving her to idle with a drink that she sipped very slowly while studying the menu. When they arrived, they’d talk incessantly of complexities she could no longer relate to – the perennially clogged traffic, the impossibility of finding anything, from a parking slot to a reliable party caterer. It made her wonder if she’d been living a shadow life all these years, like a doppelganger that showed up regularly – the auntie who gave extravagant presents – at children’s birthday parties, and, later, at their wedding receptions.
The lockdown has dammed the flow. Paradoxically, it has liberated her friends. It has returned to them, they claim, that most precious thing: time. Family time. To be marked hourly in posts on social media about recipes (turmeric milk, pineapple rasam, sorpotel) cleaning hacks, methods to make home sanitizers, virtual museum tours, free ebooks, online sourdough bread making classes. Also pictures- of workspaces, home exercise routines, heirloom crockery, pets, plants, bird sightings, sunsets and moonrises. A virtual museum of lockdown trivia. She scrolls through the posts, even ‘likes’ one or two, but that is just a way of marking herself as a present. It is important to do that, she feels. One wades into the expanding lakes of others’ memories, sifts through the family pictures of those faces that smiled bravely at the future, and wonders, what were they thinking? All the while that this lay in wait for them, what were they doing with their time but bringing forth the sunny lives and cocktail hours they’d imagined for themselves- cradling the future, feeding it. Make plans. Work. Save. Spend. Pay taxes. That was how life circulated.
Their marriage, too, had begun similarly. Married, yes. Vows said forever after, yes, but happily? Life gets its direction from desire. Knowing what you want comes first, but one rarely knows, in the beginning, what one can ask from life. Only what seems possible, what one sees others getting. Were we intended for anything other than the common- or- garden variety joys? Every generation takes its place in the same serpentine queue. After waiting for a while, she’d got the sense that when it came to their turn, the gates were inexplicably shut. The future they had thought as theirs existed, but only as a ghost family. Tests had shown repeatedly that there was nothing wrong with either of them, they had simply failed to conceive.
Commiseration flowed, in the form of well-meant advice, from family and friends, from professionals – the astrologers, face readers and fertility experts. Don’t stress, they were told. It’ll happen. In between meditation, visualization and breath control techniques, they learnt a lot about each other, grew closer, like infiltrators, but parenthood, for some unknown reason, remained a mirage. There were terms for people like them, however, nothing sounded quite right. Nulliparous was plain unattractive, childfree carried a hint of frivolity as if they were having too much fun for their own good, childless suggested a deficiency. However, as a childless couple, the failure was distributed equally. If consonance lies in symmetry then perhaps they have achieved it. They have attuned their childless lives with the intuition of those mapping a minefield. They could write a manual on the subject: How To Avoid Conflict In A Marriage Without Breaking Your Spirit. Write it together.
But marriage, she suspects, real marriage is very different. It is provocative, irrational, volatile and somewhat disgruntled. Belying its deceptive appearance of routineness, it is fraught with secrets, slights, betrayals and old anger. Let your guard down and it will ambush you when you least expect it. Over the years, she has developed an avid curiosity about the marriages of others. Having keenly witnessed the dramas in the lives of her friends, she has understood that though unquestionably a marriage, hers is nothing like those other marriages. She and her husband aren’t obviously battle-scarred. The same friends envy her firm belly, the freshness of the skin, the absence of worry lines, but not in a begrudging way. There is so much she’ll never experience. Families are good for one’s psychological well being. In them, lies the promise of grandchildren, the encore performances predicated on the transfer of family genes. Both of them are single children. Her mother-in-law’s straight nose, her father-in-law’s mathematical ability, her mother’s light eyes, her father’s green thumb…all these are family legacies that will lie unclaimed. However, when the time comes, the ephemera of their life together – tableware, books, pictures and plants – will find their way into other homes.
‘Is it our turn to sweep?’ he asks.
The Residents’ Association has prohibited the housekeeping staff, who come from the surrounding villages, from entering the premises for the period of the lockdown. It means that they, the residents, have to perform the cleaning tasks in the common areas. There are enough volunteers, though clearly no one is an expert at the job. He, too, had volunteered and was politely turned down. Men over sixty are not required. ‘I offered to help,’ he said to her, in a baffled, aggrieved voice. Forget them, she said, they are a bunch of ageists. However, secretly he broods over it. Age is at the heart of this whole thing. Sixty, seventy, eighty…everyone is at risk. Though it may not be an equal risk, it has made everyone equally old.
Two days after the lockdown began, he had received a text message informing him that two members of the association’s committee would pay them a courtesy call that afternoon. Introducing themselves as Abbi and Kaykay, the two masked visitors did not enter the apartment but remained outside the door – at the required two metres distance.
‘We’re here to check up on your welfare and to reassure you that, in case of emergencies, we’re available,’ Kaykay said.
‘What kind of emergencies do you foresee?’ he asked. It came out more forcefully than he intended.
Behind the masks Kaykay and Abbi exchanged glances. ‘Well, almost anything,’ Kaykay said with a shrug. ‘But what we meant was a medical emergency. We have several senior citizens here. There are two doctors among the residents. We have tied up with a hospital for an ambulance service. There is also a protocol in place for home quarantine cases... we’re all in this together, right?’
Closing the door, both of them looked at each other. ‘All that stuff about ambulances and protocol. Do they think we are going to get the virus?’ she asked. He did not reply but turned away, his face slightly flushed, the right-hand corner of his mouth twitching as it did when he was upset.
The doorbell rings. The neighbour lets them know that she has finished sweeping the lobby of their floor. He takes the mop and bucket of water.
When the lockdown began, they had squabbled about the cleaning duties. You can help me inside the flat, she said. But he insisted that cleaning, inside as well as outside, would be his task; with the daily help not allowed in any more, she had enough work in the kitchen and he needed to get as much physical activity as he could. She’d chipped a thumbnail while doing the dishes. She is vain about her hands and feet. Her last act before going to bed every night is to massage them every night with rose-scented oil. Secretly, she was relieved to hand over the cleaning tasks to him.
Cooking for two should be easy when one has been married for nearly thirty years, but it’s never been simple for her. He is a picky eater with a litany of dislikes – ginger, pepper, lime, vinegar, cheese, cream. He prefers to eat the same thing over and over again rather than try something new. She has, for years, cooked everything exactly the way he likes it. When he was still going to work, he took a packed lunch six days a week, which left her free to indulge her own tastes. But now he is home 24x7 and sits down at the dining table to three meals every day. In the beginning, it was a novelty she enjoyed. Even now, she still spends a great deal of time planning the meals, setting the table, but the pleasure of his company is beginning to wear thin. The truth is that she misses those solitary daytime meals of the past – the putting together of a smoothie, a grilled sandwich and a tossed salad – and eating slowly in the balcony garden outside the living room, surrounded by philodendron, pothos and Scindapsus growing in pots. Her private meals have always been casual, but after moving here, she liked to eat them just afternoon. It was the hour when the mothers and grandmothers, gathered in desultory groups under the jacaranda trees, exchanging banalities, while they waited for the yellow minivan from the playschool. The scene always reminded her of another bus– blue and white – from long ago, taking the last hill bend, from where she could see the wooden gate and the sloping slate roof of her own home. In the high-pitched voices of the play schoolers, she’d catch the sunlight slanting through the tall deodars and hear the faint echoes of her long-gone childhood.
The young children don’t come out any more. The play area has a neglected air as if tired of waiting for love to come its way. Sometimes the older children venture out, masks in place, to ride their bicycles in slow, lazy circles, always keeping the mandated distance. Children are sensitive, she thinks. What do they make of this? Is it weird or wonderful? When they finally step out, what will they step into?
He eats in silence. Broken wheat porridge, cut fruit, a cup of tea. He finishes very quickly, gets up and washes his plate and cutlery, leaving them on the draining board, before heading for his study. She hears the quiet, firm click of the door.
After clearing the table, she washes and dries the remaining dishes. In one of the floors above, a radio is playing. She hears a flutter of wings and then a low, mournful cooing from the gloomy shaft that runs alongside the kitchen window. The apartment dwellers hate pigeons and put up nettings on the balconies, but she doesn’t mind them. Puffed up chests, a waddling sideways walk, those bright, buggy eyes. However stupid, there is a certain defiance in them.
She makes iced tea and takes glass into his study. He is standing by the window looking at the thermometer on the wall.
‘On January thirty-first, this year,’ he says, ‘the city had recorded the highest temperature ever recorded in January: 33.4 degrees Celsius…and today, in early April, it shows exactly the same reading.’
She looks at him without speaking.
‘Have you heard anyone complaining about the heat this year?’ he asks. ‘High temperatures could weaken the virus, or so it is being said.’
Could, may, maybe…the falling away of certainties.
She keeps the glass of iced tea on the desk, beside his laptop. As she turns away, an image on the screen catches her eye.
‘Birds?’ she says. ‘Since when did you get interested in them?’
He cocks his head to one side, nods slowly. ‘Come here,’ he says, a half-smile on his lips. And when she goes to the window, he tells her to be quiet and listen.
There is only the breeze rustling through the palm trees, yellow butterflies dancing over the Ixora bushes, the pale leached sky, and the jacaranda blooms glowing as if energized by the light they have stolen from above. The world has turned upside down. Then she hears it, a faint yet recognisable sound, from somewhere beyond the sunlit vineyards and ripening fields of grain… in a far off mango orchard, perhaps. The call of a koel. Koo…ooo. She listens to it the way she listens to her dreams, to the voices that keep coming back, so clear as if they are in the room with her.
He is watching her face.
‘Shh…listen again,’ he says softly and points to the jacaranda trees. In the mauve mist, she makes out the shape of a nest.
‘A crow’s nest,’ he says.
And now that she has seen it, she wonders how she could have missed it all these days. Those loud, loquacious cries that disturb her dreams came – are coming – from that nest. From the raw cacophony of baby crows now emerges a new mellifluousness.
‘What is that?’ she asks with a disbelieving laugh. ‘A baby crow trying to be a koel?’
‘Or the other way round?’ he asks, looking as if enjoying himself. Cupping his palm under her elbow, he leads her back to the screen and reads out, ‘The Asian Koel was referred to in the Vedas as the Anya-Vapa, literally translating to ‘that which was raised by others.’ It is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in the nest of a similar-sized bird (the host), like mynahs, jungle babblers and crows. In some cases, the newly hatched chick pushes the host bird’s eggs out of the nest. Koel chicks also mimic the crow’s call, thus confusing the host parents who respond instinctively by feeding the chicks. Only when they grow big enough to fly away, do the koel chicks start singing in their genetically-derived voice and the foster parents chase them away.’
She doesn’t know what she likes more – the words he has just readout, the look on his face, or the life in his eyes. Maybe all of it.
A ghost family, she thinks, is easy to raise; easier still’ to lay to rest.
Madhavi Mahadevan is the author of two collections of short stories, Paltan Tales and Doppelganger and an e-novella, Swansong. She has also published a novel, The Kaunteyas, a retelling of the Mahabharata, from Kunti's perspective. Bride of the Forest, her forthcoming novel, is another story drawn from the epic. She lives in Bengaluru.