That night a large moon rose over the city of Chennai and hung above the ocean like a hard-orange candy, like the ones we used to buy for 15 paise each from the small kirana store down the street from Dadi’s house in Kanpur. Standing on the terrace of my sea side apartment, sea breeze blowing through my hair, I stood on my tip toes, stretched my hand out, plucked the moon out of the sky and popped it into my mouth. It settled inside my left cheek. It tasted of regret. It was not the taste I remembered.
I slid down to the floor, back to the wall, salt wind still blowing, my mouth turning to ash from an increasingly soggy moon in my mouth. The night was now darker than before, though not as dark as it used to be on nights that Charkhi and I sneaked up to the roof-top of Dadi’s house, when we were supposed to be in bed and, for all that the adults knew, fast asleep.
It was on one such night that Charkhi first taught me how to pluck stars and comets right out of the sky and eat them. On occasion, if the moon was full and available for picking, she would scoop it out with one sweeping gesture that ended in popping the moon straight into her open mouth. There was only enough moon for one of us to eat at a time. It was too hard to break in half and to share unless you crunched very hard on it and risked breaking your teeth. So, we preferred to leave it alone and focus on the stars, of which there were plenty for both of us. On days one of us did get our mouthful of moon, we would crawl back under the water tank to let it melt slowly in our mouths while the other cracked open the shells of the stars and nibbled on them. Having had our fill, our mouths reeking of orange, we would crawl back to bed, dodging the sleeping adults in the hallways of this large joint family, finding our way back to our beds, mine made next to Charkhi’s in the loft in Dadi’s room for the duration of the summer holidays that I was visiting.
Charkhi was my father’s oldest brother, my Tauji’s, daughter – five years and a lifetime of wisdom ahead of me. She was the fount of all knowledge and beneficence that I, or any 6-year-old, could ever know. I was her acolyte, her follower, her worshipper – her one true devotee in the temple of true devotion.
As a single child of a busy father and an overprotective mother, I kept mostly to myself. I knew, from a young age, to keep my own company in the house and to keep my overly anxious mother at peace. She was always more at ease when I was indoors, within her sensing range of safety, away from the accidental calamities of the world outdoors.
But life changed visibly for us for a few weeks every year, when during my summer holidays, Baba dropped us off to Kanpur. He’d stay a day or so and then return for another couple of days at the end of the holidays, when he came to fetch us back to Delhi. During that time, my mother drew the pallu of her sari over her head and retreated into the kitchen with my aunts and I was left to be fed, bathed and entertained in the rhythm of the household along with the many cousins who lived within its walls and courtyards. Unlike my own home in Delhi, Dadi’s house buzzed with the activities of children bawling and being soothed, hair being screened for lice, and the periodic breaking out of some noisy game around the guava tree in the courtyard. Apart from the feeding and bathing, I was an outsider to most of these activities. My activities emanated from my seemingly fancy backpack which had books, colour pencils, notebooks and toys: a matter of some envy and lots of intimidation to my cousins whose distant regard I welcomed more than their prying attention.
Of all the summers spent in Kanpur till I was about 10, the year my Dadi died and the property dispute among her sons put an end to our annual summer trips, the one summer I cherished the most was when I learned to love someone other than Ma and Baba, the people I was meant to love.
That year, the year I turned 6, it was decided that I would sleep not on my mother’s small cot in the cramped room where my father’s sisters also slept, and as I did even the year before, but on bed made up for me in the large loft, in Dadi’s room on the side across from her bed. There were seven small steps that led up to the loft. There was just enough room for me to stand up straight, but even Charkhi had to bend to get to her mattress on the floor. That day when my mother led me to Dadi’s room with Taiji, Charkhi’s mother, carrying the pillow and the sheet to go on the mattress, Charkhi was sitting on the ledge of the window above the headboard of Dadi’s bed. I had seen her, with mild curiosity, occasionally lurking in the shadows of the house before, but didn’t realize then that I was being led into her hideout. Her unbrushed hair falling over her face, she was holding on to the window bars with her hands; one of her feet dangling freely, the other folded up to her chest balancing half of her body on the narrow ledge. Taiji made a clicking sound with her tongue when she saw Charkhi, and then brushed me and my mother aside to step up the stairs. Bent on her knees, she unfurled the sheet on a mattress that was to be my bed.
My mother seemed as uncertain as me about the new arrangement and none too happy. “Now you be good,” she said, cradling my head in her arms and kissing me profusely, as if she were leaving me on some far off shore. Though I typically gave in to her smothering, that day, under the scrutiny of three pairs of eyes, for Dadi too seemed to be awake and lucid for just that moment and staring straight at us, I stiffened up. I wriggled out of the hold, which I know my mother would have registered as distinct betrayal, and also as yet another reason why these extended stays with her in-laws without her husband made no sense. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, this was the usual subject of argument in raised voices that the closed door of my parents’ room did little to keep from my ears.
Later, when Charkhi and I were lying side-by-side, neither of us was ready to acknowledge being awake, though wakefulness hung in the air between us like wide-eyed children. We were each focused on Dadi’s musical snoring. And then unexpectedly there was Dadi’s fart: a small mousy squeak that, as it gathered momentum in its crescendo, sounded just like a screaming cat. We both laughed out loud holding our stomachs and rolling about. In the morning when we woke up, it seemed only logical that Charkhi would take one long look at me and swiftly take me under her wing; and I tagged along as one marked for attention, to be led into mischief and adventure as I had never known before.
The most important thing I learned from Charkhi was to observe, unobserved; and from that, I learned that it was easy to throw the lives of adults into confusion through small, decisive moves. Mixing Tauji’s fine powder snuff with mud from under the guava tree; moving a particularly cranky old uncle’s spectacles from the left to the right side of the bed; waiting for our aunt to doze off before we stole the sweet mango aachar she was guarding on the terrace from the monkeys; and finding loose change in the pockets of kurtas hanging behind doors to fund our orange candy were among our misdeeds that went unnoticed while the adults blamed and cursed in irritation.
It never struck me as odd that Charkhi was more unkempt than most, that she didn’t talk very much, or that we communicated mostly in silence or touch. She’d hold my face and peer into my eyes in a way I had never known before or have since. Her large, brown, searching eyes looked right into my soul. She had not only let me into her world, she had also taught me how to be in it. Although older than me, she didn’t seem to be able to read and write from my books like I could. But she was happy to see me write or draw and would sometimes scribble along with me on sheets I tore out from my notebook for her. My mother did not seem to be pleased with my new found affection for Charkhi, but she had no time in the household that ran clockwork between meals and chores to monitor what I was up to. The other cousins in the house seemed to keep a wary distance from the both of us and that suited us just fine.
Over the next few years, I had overheard enough conversations to know something was wrong with Charkhi. She did not go to school, and she certainly didn’t seem to behave or talk like everyone else did. My mother tried to dissuade me from her company, my father told me to that I should concentrate on homework while in Kanpur, but my heart and soul yearned to meet my favorite cousin who made my world open into wide, wild spaces. Time spent with her was like spending time with myself. We could stare into space; we could adopt kittens; we could compete over eating leaves off the tulisi pots on the rooftop; I could tell her all the stories my heart wanted to tell her. She heard me, looked at me and paid me attention more fully than any other human could.
When Dadi died the year I turned 10, Charkhi was 15. I had never asked why time stopped still with Charkhi; I was just glad that it did. By then there were more things I understood about the difficulty of Charkhi’s situation. My Taiji was her step-mother I learned which, in some strange calculation in my head, explained the things that I didn’t understand about Charkhi that the others in the family dismissed as bechari pagal hai – something about her being pitiable and mad. Charkhi was not as nimble that year and we didn’t skip about the house in stealthy mischief like before. I remember she slept a lot, as if against her will, but even then, we made it to the terrace a few times. I plucked out the moon for her to eat, with lots of stars on the side.
The year after that and the many more that followed involved angry phone calls and legal cases, my mother finally had her wish; there were no more annual trips to Kanpur, none that involved me at least. I remember being denied phone calls to Charkhi despite tantrums and days of sulking. Eventually Charkhi must have made it to a safe-box in my memory that I plunged deep into myself. Finishing school and college, moving cities for jobs and living with a hankering for closeness but unable to hold on to intimate relationships, I had been wandering and chasing big skies and was now in Chennai, living in the mouth of a bay that opened out to the ocean. In all this, I didn’t forget Charkhi even though I didn’t actively think of her. Not until last week, that is.
The endless court cases involving the house and property in Kanpur finally came to an end this year, after three decades of mess that swept my generation of cousins into a swirl. Finally, there was a resolution, and I had to go to Kanpur with my father for the final sale of the property. During the journey, I constantly wondered what became of Charkhi.
When we landed, Kanpur was nothing like what my memory served. I couldn’t recognize anything during the cab ride from the airport. When we turned the corner to get into the street that would lead up to the house, that I remembered as a sparse unmarked lane that had the small kirana store on one end, was now packed with buildings spilling onto the road. When we got to it, I could barely recognize the house in disrepair, flanked by tall apartments on all sides. It was the only house hugging the ground, its access to the sky all but cut off. When we went in through the creaky gate, the 10-year-old me came rushing out and all I cared about was to find Charkhi. But the security guard of the house had only recently been appointed and knew nothing of the family that lived there decades ago.
The big family had dispersed from the house in phases through the years, till death and migration took from it its last living occupant. It then fell to cobwebs and guardswhile the courts decided its fate. Later, during the gathering of uncles, aunts and cousins who made it for the final sale finally got me Charkhi’s news. She had been committed to a mental institution long ago. No one remembered exactly when or where. Was it in Kanpur? With some persistence, I tracked down an aunt who knew exactly where. With my heart in my mouth, the next morning I went to a government facility for the mentally ill. After some wrangling and exchange of money, I was finally permitted to walk through the building to see Charkhi.
She was sitting by herself, unkempt as always, thin, quiet, wrist chained to the metal headboard of her bed, staring blankly into the wall. The disquiet of crying, screaming, reeking and rattling from everywhere around her seemed to make no difference at all. I called her name but she did not answer. I went and stood in front of her face. Nothing about this woman was the 15-year-old Charkhi I remembered, but it was her. I bent down, took her face in my hands and peered into her eyes; it was the same gaze that I hadn’t forgotten. It didn’t matter that Charkhi had turned 50 this year because long ago, Charkhi had turned inside out.
Back in Chennai, I took the elevator up to the terrace, my place of refuge and solace at night. The harvest moon had risen in betrayal and guilt. All I could do was pluck it right out of the sky and eat it. As for the side of stars, I decided to pass on it.
Anannya Dasgupta is the director of the Centre for Writing and Pedagogy, and Associate Professor in Literature at Krea University. Her short stories have appeared, among other places, in Out of Print, Bangalore Review, Aaina Nagar, Queen Mob’s Teahouse and Elsewhere Lit.