Ma is away on one of her transatlantic journeys: this time in Europe to research her ancestry. Of late, she is more preoccupied than usual. I should be upset that I don’t feature more in the list of things important in her life. Truth is, I am relieved I don’t have to bear the brunt of her sharp tongue any more. If words could kill, my Ma would be a champion murderer.
No, I don’t mean to sound cruel, it’s just a fact of life… Know what I mean?
Dad’s on an extended research trip, too. Of course, he is so absent minded, he’s not there even when he is in the room. Yet I miss him. He is a warm, comforting presence, full of big bear hugs. And besides, he really has a great sense of humour, which often has me in splits… Most of his jokes go over Ma’s head, which of course is half the fun. It should be cruel that we share a laugh at her expense.It’s only right that I get back at her in some form.
So, when they are away, I have full reign of the house. I am not alone though. Sarita, Ma’s trusted cook and housekeeper is there, along with Hari, her husband who is also our resident driver. This couple has dedicated their life to taking care of us. When Mum is mad the only person who can calm her down is Sarita. Sarita also knows all of Mum’s tastes: in food, in clothes… In men.There I’ve said it aloud.
She is the soul mate Ma never had.
But I don’t grudge Sarita her facetime with Mum; for she’s always been there for me.
So this trip—with Mum and Dad both away, and me being able to do whatever I want around the house— starts exactly like any other. I run through the living room screaming at the top of my voice. Then back, this time tracing my path across the sofas, leaping onto the chair. Springing back I use it as leverage to high jump over the antique central table. Ha! What a thrill.
All through this time there is no sign of Sarita. So, I go in search of her, bursting through the door at the back of the kitchen, into the little room that the couple share. It’s the smell, which hits me first: the reek of unwashed bodies, of food gone bad, of unwashed clothes: a dry, bitter, mouth-curling odour that makes me want to turn tail and run away.
I am rooted to the spot. For I have walked in on Hari raising a rolling pin to hit Sarita, who is on the floor. Her one eye is swollen shut, and there is blood dribbling from a cut to her lip. She raises her hand to protect her face, and even as I watch Hari brings the stick down on her hand—Thwack!—The stick breaks in two. Sarita cries out, cradling her arm. Surely the bones of her forearm have broken too?
Then, I am leaping at Hari, flinging myself at his back, holding onto him, refusing to let go. I am small, just a little higher than four feet, and my ten-year-old spirit is a long way from being broken. It’s the first time I truly feel that funny little fizzy feeling at the base of my spine: a violet burn bubbling up as if the cauldron of a wicked witch. Hari’s a full-grown man, almost six feet tall. Thankfully he is quite skinny, like Indian men from less privileged backgrounds tend to be. I hold onto him: a monkey latching onto the trunk of a tree. Except in this case it’s a moving tree.
He bellows in anger, stamping his feet, trying to shake me off. I hold on, digging my nails into his shoulders, which only gets another bellow of frustration from him.
Sarita crawls to the corner, like a cat slinking away to lick its wounds. Compressing her body, she wraps her arms around her legs. Trying to flatten herself against the wall, she makes her body as small as possible as if that will make her inconspicuous.
The movement draws the eye of the demon on whose shoulder I am perched. With a howl he leaps forward, the rolling pin raised in his hand like a weapon.
It’s the first time I wished I had a real sword in my hand too.
Instead I bend down and bury my teeth in his neck. I am Dracula, I taste his blood. Once I get past the gagging stench of his clothes. I shut my eyes against the horrible, sour, scent of his skin. And, something else. It’s a sharp, lingering spoor. Like when I sometimes walk in to the living room the morning after Ma has thrown a party, and the remains have not yet been cleaned? It’s the persistent smell of rancid alcohol. Ugh! Not even mouthwash is going to get rid of that acrid flavour on my tongue. His blood dribbles, over my chin and still I refuse to let go. With a shriek Hari drops to the floor.
He rolls over, once, twice, like a bear trying to get rid of a leech. Crunch—I hit my head against the floor. I am stunned sufficiently enough to loosen my hold on this horrible man, who immediately breaks free. He crawls… The other way to the door. After putting enough distance between us, he finally gets to his feet. Now that he is safely out of my reach, he turns to me. His eyes bore into me. Fear, resentment… Revenge.
I meet his gaze bravely. I am quivering inside but I will not let him see that. I’ve overheard Dad say how you have to always kick men in their balls. I jump to my feet and throw my leg at him. It’s not elegant— I’ve just started learning the basics of Jiu Jitsu—but it suffices.
He bends, over and howls. Just like a dog in pain. Taking advantage of his temporary helplessness, I push him out and shut the door. When I walk towards Sarita, she shrinks further into herself. I notice for the first time that her kurta is torn. Pulling off the towel from the hook on the back of the door I throw it to her and she wraps it around herself, shivering as if it is zero degrees temperature instead of the almost forty-degrees summer heat we are trapped here.
She raises eyes streaming with tears to me: “Don’t tell your Ma… Don’t tell anyone. Please, I beg, you. If you do I’ll lose my job.”
That’s me alright, the world’s best keeper of secrets.
If you knew the number of little not-to-be-shared-with anyone nuggets I carry around in my head, you’d mistake me for a porcupine; each of these mysteries drilling their way out of me, trying to escape. Soon I am going to run out space for all of them. What then?