I remember my mother dancing. I remember craning my neck to see her, tilting my head so far back that my eyes were in line with my heels, for when I was short and round and two-years-old, my mother was tall and translucent, and very beautiful and would have been twenty-one-years-old. Although I don’t remember specifically, my mouth might have been open as I watched her sway and shimmy and twirl. My mouth was always open toothlessly in family photos from that time.
But I remember that when she raised herself on tiptoes, extending her neck and flinging her arms, she seemed to become light, like a heron with its wings spread before it takes flight. When she arched her body, I could see the hollow in her neck, the muscles taut on either side under her luminous skin. Her hair, long and braided with a red nylon ribbon that ended in a bow below her hips, undulated in the curve of her back. It swung and flicked and trailed after her as she danced and danced. I wanted to touch the bright red bow, smell the Keo Karpin oil in her shiny black hair. My mat of hair reeked of coconut oil.
I remember I could see my mother’s teeth, gleaming like a white picket fence through her lips parted in a half smile. I had teeth, too. They had begun to sprout but they were small, like a rat’s, and when people asked “show me your teeth,” I grimaced to bare them, like Lucy, our dog.
My mother was singing along with the radio, a Bollywood film song, by Shamshad Begum or maybe Suraya, I don’t remember. They had both stopped singing when I grew up. But I remember the old murphy radio, squatting heavily on my father’s polished rosewood table. My mother had sewn a cover for it on the Singer foot pedal sewing machine, her feet going up and down on the pedal, fingers moving the cloth through the needle. She had received it in dowry, the sewing machine, not the radio which my father had bought. The green poplin cover protected the radio from the fine black soot that clung to all surfaces in our house, even whitewashed walls. My father was a railway man and we lived by the tracks on which the steam locomotive passed many times a day, whistling, roaring, blowing smoke through our windows.
My mother had sewn the green poplin cover, and had smocked the front piece to make a frilly curtain for the old Murphy. She had embroidered red and pink roses with silk threads, filling in the petals with satin stitch and the leaves on the thorny stems with short-and-long stitches. The roses felt soft and velvety. My father could flip the cover over the radio top to adjust the tuner and if I sat in his lap, I could see the needle moving through bright, backlit stations, gurgling, babbling, talking and singing sweetly. After dinner, my father worked on the table in the space around the radio, sitting on a chair with woven cane seat and back, the only other piece of furniture he owned. We ate and slept on the floor and if I rolled off the bed, I could keep on sleeping, by the bed instead of on the bed, with my family.
My mother sang and danced with her eyes closed, hoop earrings swinging, the locket in the gold chain swaying between her breasts, both wedding gifts from my grandmother. She had wrapped the end of her sari around her waist, tucking it, accentuating her slim shape while I stood shapelessly with short pudgy legs stabbing my potbellied trunk. I closed my eyes and flung the stumps of my arms and went around and round on my flat feet until I flopped on the floor, dizzy and giddy. And then my mother opened her eyes, shining like black onyx, which in that moment I believe was with love for me (because I don’t remember my brother, though he was just a year older and must have been there). And thus, we waited every evening, my mother and I, for my father to come home from work, the man we both loved.
I remember my mother crouching on the floor by a kerosene stove, pumping it to build pressure and stirring a pot of steaming milk on the burner. She said it would be done in a few minutes. Look, it’s starting to boil and foam already, she said, stirring it continuously so it wouldn’t spill. Once the milk was done boiling, she would pour some in a glass, add sugar and cool it for me. A good boil kills germs, she told me. I remember waiting for my good, sterilized milk, holding the door frame with both hands, swinging from it. Waiting, swinging, happily, patiently.
I remember my hand slipping, losing its grip on the door frame. I remember falling, like an invisible hand had shoved me from behind, my head hitting the sharp lip of the hot aluminum pot. I remember the shock of the milk spilling, the cemented kitchen floor turning a milky white. I remember my mother snatching me, sitting me in a dry corner away from the steaming spread of the sterilized milk, pounding and grinding raw potatoes with stone to make a paste for the split above my left brow which I pressed with both hands to stop the bleeding like she told me to. I don’t remember the bleeding, the pain, the burning. I don’t remember the stove which might have turned over, the kerosene that might have spilled and mixed with the hot milk. I don’t remember either of us crying out. I remember the shocked silence, my own, watching the milk spread like white paint, steam rising from it. And the pounding of stone on stone. I remember thinking that nobody was going to get any milk that evening because of me. The cows were done milking for the day.
I remember the white sand beach in old Madras, deserted except for the fishermen who sold us the catch of the day, and one time my baby brother, my grandfather said. I don’t remember purchasing the fishes or my baby brother but grandpa insisted. I remember my older brother — I called him Bhaiya, meaning older brother — and I making sand houses. We squat closer to the water’s edge, not too close, just where the last wave of high tide drew a crooked line. I push one foot a little forward, scoop the wet sand around it, patting it in layers on top of that foot. Scoop and pat, scoop and pat with both hands until my house grows bigger and bigger and covers my toes, the balls and the top of my foot completely. I make a ball of wet sand and carefully, carefully stick it to the highest point on the sand house to make a dome, like the dome on the Kali temple. Now, and this is important, I slip your foot out inch by inch, slowly, very slowly. If I am careful, the roof would hold until the tide washes my damp house away. The back of my frock dress is sodden with salt water, soiled with sand and clings roughly to my thighs. Sand between my toes, in the creases of my palm, under my nails.
I remember my mother fishing me out of the river. My grandparents wanted to bathe in the Triveni, the confluence of three holy rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Many Hindus do it to wash their sins to reserve a place in heaven. My grandparents were old and needed to make their reservations. My father rented a boat to take us to the three holy rivers’ confluence, the sangam. The boatman showed us two rivers: Ganga was white and Yamuna was black. He said Saraswati was brown but she flowed underground to meet the other two river goddesses. The three rivers brought silt to their meeting. Ganga’s white, Yamuna’s black and Saraswati’s brown silt piled up at the sangam, making it shallow and safe to bathe, he said.
The rivers roiled and roared at the confluence, they looked angry. There was no need to fear the waters, the boatman said, because no one ever drowned at the sangam, and if they did their souls would fly straight to heaven. People wanted to die here, he said, but they couldn’t because no one had a cache of good deeds that was big enough to buy them a straight ticket to heaven. So don’t worry, he said.
Grandpa sneered, said he wasn’t worried and jumped in fearlessly. My father went in and helped our mothers, his and mine. They stood waist or chest-deep in the water and began scouring their sins off their skins with fistfuls of the tricolor mud. Bhaiya dived from the boat confidently and floated up grinning. Of course. At six years of age, his cache of good deeds was nearly empty, I knew. I thought about mine and couldn’t remember any good deeds I had done lately. So I jumped after my brother.
The water was cold and dark. It swirled and churned and whipped silt around me. Silt in my eyes. Silt in my nose and ears. White, black and brown silt in my mouth when I gasped. The holy waters were scrubbing my sins off my insides and outside. Silt shifted under my feet. I panicked. If the waters cleansed me too well, I would become sinless and light and the three river goddesses would send me away to the heavens.
At that moment, my mother’s hands caught me and lifted me back in the boat because my father had said, get the kids out of water and let’s find something to eat. So my mother pulled me out. She didn’t know I was drowning. I remember sitting wrapped in a thin cotton towel, shivering, staring at the angry waters. I remember my father asking, Did you have fun? Bhaiya was grinning. Grandpa was smirking, grandma and my mother were shivering. No one knew how hard the three river goddesses had tried to send me off to heaven. But my mother had snatched me away from them, unknowingly. My teeth chattered like a troop of monkeys in my mouth.
I am hungry, I said.
Manju Lata Prasad is a physician by day and a wishful writer by night. She grew up in India in a Railway family that moved every three years. She immigrated to the USA in 1994 to train in the pathology of cancers and is currently a Professor at the Yale School of Medicine where she teaches physicians-in-training. She is an alumnus of several summer writers’ conferences and workshops including Iowa and Sewanee.