Photo by WERNER DORNIK, detail
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Merle Almeida

Watercolour by SUDIP ROY

You know the ad. The one where the perfectly normal whatever morphs into sinister shapes when you look through the bottle. Smirnoff. It was something like that, Su felt. Actually not so much sinister as sad. And funny. Something-walked-over-my-grave sad. Strange funny. In the flash of a crystal-fired moment.

Su and Anish were rummaging through Oshiwara’s Chor Bazaar. The old furniture place in suburban Bombay. The rocking chair caught Su’s eye. It was exactly like the pair of rocking chairs she remembered from her childhood home in Goa. Which rocked her through every summer holiday, feet up on the stone seat, through books of every ilk and scores of magazines —ancient Catholic Digests and Irish Digests that came from the tattered leather suitcase in the loft. They had stories called ‘Merrylegs, her role in winning the war’ and stuff like that. Stories that no p.c. editor would publish today. Anyway, the rocking chair. Su’s sister had sat on hers across from Su, feet up on the left stone seat that evolved into banisters for the front stairs, Su on the right. Su sat and rocked and read and rocked and read all through the day and until it was too dark to read. Her sister played and rocked and read in between when the sun was too hot and the other mothers called her friends indoors. Then she sat and rocked and read as well. There was another pair of rocking chairs in the sitting room, but those didn’t fit them as well. Su and Sheila grew, Leon Uris gave way to Maugham and then Fielding and Rushdie, but the chairs still fitted, perfectly.

And here they were again. Or chairs just like them. In fact, for the last so many years, the seats of the old chairs that Su now saw on her annual darshan home had been rewoven in plastic twine instead of cane. But this chair, this beautiful, wonderful chair in Chor Bazaar was done in cane. It was marred only slightly by a too-dark, too-glossy polish but Su felt she just had to check it out. She sat herself in it, and it fitted. Perfectly. She could have sat there all night. Reliving Maugham in summer and hot ragi porridge in the monsoon as the rain lashed two feet away, splashing her as well. But it was not to be. Inevitably, the heavy cloak she thought she had put away came down again. Settling heavily on her shoulders.

It always happened, always returned. She could never, ever, buy old furniture from Goa without the original owners putting in an appearance. And now, sitting in this old rocking chair that felt so hers, she could feel herself growing, widening, her own tires broadening and spilling softly into folds, the creases working into the pale green and pink floral print. Her hands clutched a rosary, black-beaded with a silver crucifix. Only one decade of the rosary was left but today was Friday, the day of the sorrowful mysteries, and she also had to pray for her dead. She could hear something… why did they interrupt her while she was praying, must be that infernal servant girl. "Donna Lucinda, Donna Lucinda," she turned slowly, heavily. A portly man was silhouetted in the fading light.

Ahmedbhai stroked a chest of drawers lovingly, his palm flat against the rounded edges. This is a beautiful piece, all teak, have you seen the handles?

It had happened again. Furniture that Su liked and picked went and conjured up people more beloved, dogs — she always thought — whining for their owners. The conjured avatar had now gone, but she was hung over with things that were not hers. The fear of dying alone, the sadness of letters that did not arrive, of money that took so long to arrive and was never enough when it did. Of servants who died, of old-age griefs and lonelinesses. Of want and need. These were not Su’s sadnesses, they belonged to the floral printed silver-haired woman in the chair, they belonged to the chair. Could she belong to that chair as well? Su doubted it. She sighed. The other woman was gone but the cloak of sadness stayed. Heaviest was the latterly sadness — of selling the furniture and the little ivory figure of St Anthony from the chapel in the old part of the house. It brought a lot of money, lasted the old lady some time, until the chandelier had to go.

Su tossed her head back to clear it, walking away from the rocking chair. Silly, nostalgic, sentimental stupidity, she rubbished her fancies. But Anish was looking at her wearily. Not again?! his look said. So it was still on her face. She shrugged, just to check if the cloak was still there. It had faded, already a faint, half-forgotten weight. Su decided she wouldn’t talk about it this time. Maybe the next time, it would not happen. Maybe the next time she would simply walk in, pick a nice piece, buy it and take it home. Jettison the crappy clinging to people and pictures from a quarter-century ago — or more? Everybody else did. But as Su stepped out of the shop, Ahmedbhai arrested her. The outside light had faded and the crammed interior was a dim jumble of dark shapes under the solitary bulb. "Look at this crystal, pure Belgian crystal," he said lovingly. Her eyes fell on the two door-handles of an old cupboard. Su did not see the cupboard, only the two crystal handles, exquisitely cut. But something played tricks, clarified the light so it seared her, bringing a sharp, painful awareness of a neighbour back home in Goa. The spinster who lived on nothing, surrounded by a few pieces of furniture and a lot of goodwill, often hungry, always proud. Su had to stretch her back to ease the constriction, to breathe. The exquisite crystal light spliced the darkness, more oppressive than the cloak that she still bore.

The divan would have to do, she shrugged. It had sufficed anyway for so many years.


 
Merle Almeida is Editor, Equities Research, with Kotak in Bombay