A tale of loss and reconciliation centered around Emily Coelho who finds solace in her home and garden even as she relinquishes them.
Emily Coelho stood outside the Fatima church in Hadapsar, in suburban Poona, where a small East Indian community congregated every Sunday for morning mass. She was dressed in her second best, printed silk dress, which went a little below her knees. It had a narrow strip of pink lace at the collar, which matched the pale pink and grey flowers, on the off white silk dress. The dress, with its gathered skirt, hung loosely over her as she had gone thin since the last year, after a long bout of flu. She wore open toed sandals, with sensible low heels and in her hand was her small black handbag of artificial leather, which held her prayer book and black rosary in it.
The whitewashed church embellished with twin curvy spires that rose into the sky, had a massive front door and broad steps on which parishioners stood talking.
‘Hie Aunt Emily!’ hailed a neighbour. Emily turned around and peered to see who it was. Joachim from the ground floor flat next to hers smiled at her and waved from the far end, near Our Lady’s grotto.
‘Joachim! I want you to come for my barbecue today at seven in the evening,’ Emily said warmly, her eyes twinkling, ‘You weren’t at home when I telephoned on Friday.’ Joachim was always wanted at parties. He was funny and good at mimicking people – ponderous Father William who had a pot belly that wobbled, or the headmaster at the local English medium school Mr. Raunak Pandurang, who always talked in a British accent, which occasionally slipped to say ‘test’ instead of ‘taste’ and ‘jeero’ instead of ‘zero’. Joachim promised to come, provided Aunt Emily made her famous Sorpotel, in addition to the pig that would be roasted at the barbecue. Emily nodded her head, ‘Of course,’ she said and waved at a few more of her friends before she said, ‘Well, I must be going’ and turned to the cemetery for her customary visit to Sophie’s grave.
The headmaster at the local English medium school Mr. Raunak Pandurang, who always talked in a British accent, which occasionally slipped to say ‘test’ instead of ‘taste’ and ‘jeero’ instead of ‘zero’.
The tombs were spread out over grassy knolls in orderly rows. Most of them were old, with marble slabs, but there were a few wooden crosses to mark the newer graves, over mounds of earth. Some were inscribed with messages about the good nature of those who had passed on and others just bore terse dates that conveyed the births and deaths of those interred in the graves. Emily walked up to Sophie’s grave. Her little Sophie who had died of a fever twenty years ago… The grief was as fresh as on the day that she had lost her youngest child. The small marble edifice had the words “Sophie Coelho. Born on 14-10-74. Called to the Lord on 1-7-78. In Heaven we will meet our Darling Angel.” Emily bent her head in prayer for a few minutes and then moved on. A soft breeze played around as she walked through the grass and a dandelion flew in the air. Emily remembered playing in the park with Sophie, chasing dandelions. Sophie had loved dandelions. Emily almost heard her gurgling with childish delight. She seemed to be saying, ‘Don’t worry ma, I’m still around.’ Emily deftly caught the dandelion for Sophie. ‘Lucky to catch a dandelion, Baby,’ she murmured to Sophie. Just then Orchid D’Cruz came up and loped her arm into Emily’s. ‘Let’s go home together, ‘she said, ‘I’ll help you with the cooking.’
They walked to the nearby Sarowar Apartments where they both lived. Emily had three flats on the ground floor. James had bought them after he had returned from the Gulf fifteen years earlier. There would be one for each of their three children, he had said. But the children grew up and went away, in the manner of all children.
James merged the three flats into a single apartment. The three ground floor flats had entitled them to the ownership of the open area around. Emily had green fingers. The open space was soon transformed into a lovely garden with a hedge of honey suckle and a handkerchief sized lawn that shimmered like an emerald. They planted two trees – a sapling of guava and another of mango, at each corner, at the back of the garden, so that small boys would not steal the fruit from near the front gate. A spreading champa grew near their bed room window and the fragrance of its small mauve, flowers filled the air. James watered the lawn and every season Emily planted beds of flowering plants and shrubs. There were flocks, gerberas and daisies. Along the wall, she planted lovely dahlias and bright red gladioli. She remembered the time when her dahlias had won prizes for two consecutive years at the local flower show held by the Rotary Club. Emily entered her garden gate and Orchid left her. ‘I’ll come in half an hour,’ Orchid called over her shoulder.
A spreading champa grew near their bed room window and the fragrance of its small mauve, flowers filled the air
The garden was no longer orderly now. It was full of wild growth. A large, yellow lizard with beady eyes stared at Emily from its perch on the guava tree. Emily shooed away the lizard. Only the other day, she had strained the milk from the saucepan to find a dead lizard in it. They had just escaped being poisoned. She had chided the servant Gangoobai for being so careless.
‘You did not even bother to cover the milk. We’ll die one of these days of lizard poisoning and our children won’t even know that we are dead,’ she scolded.
Emily walked into the kitchen meditatively. She planned her menu for the evening. The meat had been bought and the spices had been ground fresh by Gangoobai and kept in the airtight plastic container on the kitchen shelf. She had bought fresh cucumber, tomatoes and spring onions on her visit to the bazaar the previous evening. The flour had been already kneaded into firm dough for the Parathas. Gangoo would come in the evening to roll out the Parathas. Orchid would also help. She must ask James to get the ice cream, she thought.
James lay in the easy chair in the garden in the sun dozing, his mouth slack and open. ‘James – James,’ she called softly. ‘Get up,’ a note of reproach creeping into her voice. ‘No Sunday mass and sleeping so late in the morning.’ James rubbed his eyes guiltily.
“Nat sleepin,” he said “Just dozed off, the sun was so warm.” He moved in languidly.
” Wot yu cooking?’ he asked.
“Your fav,’ she answered, “sorpotel and roast pig, biryani and parathas. Just call at the corner store for ice cream.”
James shuffled off to do her bidding. He was no longer as sprightly as he was when the children were around. They had fewer parties now. Ten years ago the house rang with laughter, as the children teased each other and threw the ball through the basketball net on the post that stood at one end of the garden. The post was now rickety, the wood rotting at the base.The dark brown piano in the sitting room stood silent, a coat of dust on the top, with the sheets of music untouched for so many years. They had spent so many happy hours singing songs of an evening –
My Bonnie lies over the o-shun,
My Bonnie lies oh-ver the see,
My Bonnie lies over the o-shun,
My Bonnie lies oh-ver the see,
Bring back, O bring back-
O bring back my Bonnie to meee!
Last night as I lay on my pil-low,
Last night as I lay on my bed,
Last night as I lay on my pil-ow,
I dreamt that – my Bonnie was dead.
Bring back – Obring back –
O Bring back my Bonnie to me – to me!
O Bring back my Bonnie to mee…
The house was silent now. They missed the children and the happy days gone by. But today there was an air of merriment. It was Stephen’s birthday and they celebrated it just the same as if he were right there with them and not miles away in Ottawa. Stephen was working on his PhD on ‘Nutritional Deficiency and Delayed Cognitive Skills in Korku children of Melghat.’ He had met a white girl at a discotheque and married her in the Lutheran church that he attended. Emily’s eyes smarted with tears at the memory of the marriage of her first born. No invitation card in white and gold, no dinner reception. She had so looked forward to a grand wedding at the Church hall, with her best grape wine and Father Fio’s witty toast to the bride and groom. Emily wiped her tears with her kerchief and looked out of the sitting room window. She saw James, his head bobbing above the garden hedge, walking along the road. She watched him till she could no longer see him.
They said that they could not get more leave of absence from their jobs in America. A father’s death entitled you to a week’s leave, no more. Americans were workaholics and had no time for their parents. Most of them put their parents in old age homes anyway and didn’t even visit them at Christmas.
James reached the cold storage with its lurid picture of roasted chicken and a live fowl, on the sign board at the front of the shop.
‘Give me two party packs of ice cream,’ he told the store boy, Chotu.
‘What flavour Uncle?’ asked Chotu.
‘Chocolate,’ said James. As he stood at the store, James suddenly felt sick, a dizzy feeling over took him and he gripped the service table. Perspiration beaded his brow.
‘Uncle! Uncle! Are you ill?’ Chotu called out in alarm. He helped James to the back of the shop and made him sit on a bench there and got him a glass of water. He called up Emily. She came in a taxi, dressed just as she was when she got the phone call from the shop — in her faded home clothes. James smiled wanly when he saw her.
‘Just feeling a little queer, old girl,’ he whispered.
‘’Now James! You’re going to be right as rain! You can’t get sick just now,’ she scolded, her face looking strong and dependable. James lay gratefully with his head on her shoulder in the taxi as they took him to the Sassoon Hospital. But on the way James slumped forward and Emily caught him with a stifled scream. His head lay on her shoulders till they got to the hospital. She was too stunned to cry when the doctors came out of the ICU and told her that they had been too late. She sat silent and still, clutching her rosary. James was dead, she told herself. How would she live without James? Orchid came to the hospital and took her home.
The neighbours and relatives came and sat in Emily’s tidy front room. They lit a candle at the altar with the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and hastily cleared the room of furniture. A long, wooden table was placed in the centre of the room, with the brown wooden coffin in which James lay peacefully. Two lit candles were kept at the head of the corpse. They sat praying, saying the rosary, the prayers for the Dead – Eternal Rest Grant Unto Him O Lord and Let Thy Perpetual Light Shine Upon Him… They sang hymns of grief and hope, Lord I’m coming Home and Lead Kindly Light.
Orchid phoned the boys at Ottawa and Philadelphia and Rose at New Jersey. The children came home — first Rose and then Stephen and Cajetin. They sat by their mother, holding her frail hands, as Emily lay in bed, dry eyed and numb. She was unable to come to terms to a home without James to be taken care of. Cooking his special Sunday lunch of chicken curry and fried fish. He had liked his evening rotis hot from the tava with the vegetable curry and just two sausages grilled. And bless him — he never worried her by drinking more than was good for him. He just had a glass of whisky for company at Christmas and Easter…
The garden now went completely to ruin. Weeds grew and there were no flowering plants other than the wild roses and the bougainvillea.
For a few days the house was filled with the sounds of people moving and talking. Rose took over the kitchen and boiled endless cups of tea for the visitors who streamed in. But after the funeral and the seventh day’s memorial mass, the children went back. They said that they could not get more leave of absence from their jobs in America. A father’s death entitled you to a week’s leave, no more. Americans were workaholics and had no time for their parents. Most of them put their parents in old age homes anyway and didn’t even visit them at Christmas. The children urged Emily to accompany them to America. But she demurred. She dreaded the thought of living as a dependant with her children. She preferred the golden sun in Poona. The one time she had visited Rose in New Jersey, her arthritis had got more painful during the long, cold winter.
The garden now went completely to ruin. Weeds grew and there were no flowering plants other than the wild roses and the bougainvillea. The grass in the garden wore a dull, yellow, dry look in the summer months since no one watered the lawn any more. Sometimes Emily pulled up an old wicker chair and sat dozing in the sun, her head shaded by a straw hat that her grand children had bought on a trip to Goa and left behind. Her eyesight was fading and she no longer read the papers. She sat at times in the evening before the TV hearing the world news about bomb blasts and hijacks and the worsening Arab-Israeli crisis. She was alarmed at the news of a Sikh mistaken for an Iraqi and being attacked by right wing Americans in New York. Her heart beat with anxiety for the safety of her children lest they be mistaken — with their brown complexions, for Arabs and attacked in the streets. She wrote letters in a shaky hand to her children every month.
“Dear Stephen,” she wrote, “Do take care and lock the door safely at night. See that the children are safe. Hope they are studying well.” Rose replied to her letters and sent her a present of two hundred dollars every month. The boys remembered her at Christmas and sent her five hundred dollars each with their greetings. They promised to send her a return ticket provided she was ready to cross the seas and be with them. But she refused to be persuaded.
One night Emily shut the fine mesh front door which kept out the mosquitoes and had her lonely supper of bread and a chicken curry. She said her prayers and retired to bed, switching off the bedroom light. Then she heard a low hissing sound. It emanated from the window which overlooked the garden. The sound unnerved her. There was a soft slithering noise and she prayed to Archangel Michael who crushed the serpent and St George who destroyed dragons and all kinds of evil. She didn’t sleep a wink that night. As the first streaks of the grey dawn gave way to the morning light, she got up in bed and looked around fearfully. At the far end of the room, near her writing desk, coiled on the leg of her chair, was a fat black cobra that looked at her with malevolent, red eyes. She stepped out of the room slowly, softly, in bare feet, backing out of the room, her eye on the serpent.
It warmed her old bones to think that there was beauty and laughter again in the apartment that she and James had lived in and raised their children.
‘Joachim, Orchid,’ she called in her high, quavering voice and they came out hurriedly, alarmed at the sense of urgency in her voice. Joachim asked his two sons to come down and they came armed with sticks. The snake had moved away to a dark corner under the bed. When they poked at it with a long broom, it stood up with its hood flared out and darted out angrily at them. They beat it and killed it.
‘Unlucky to kill a snake, its mate will come back and seek its revenge,’ muttered the watchman Vikram Singh, who had come along to watch the spectacle.
Orchid kept her company for a few nights thereafter. But Emily was tired of her large apartment and her garden. She called an estate agent and asked him to look for a buyer for her home. She bought a small flat, which had fortuitously just fallen vacant — on the first floor of Sarovar Apartments. Her new home had a single bedroom, a small kitchen and a little sitting room in which to entertain her few visitors.
Emily’s three flats were bought by a prosperous Gujarati joint family – old Mr. Kishanchand Mehta and his wife Saritabehn and their three sons, their daughters-in-law and their six grandchildren. The Mehtas owned a large textile shop in the city and the house rang with the merry laughter of the six Gujarati children. Emily called the children upstairs to her flat sometimes and gave them a chocolate each from the chocolates that her children sent her in parcels with visitors who were going home to India.
The new Gujarati owners employed a young mali who planted large dahlias and chrysanthemums in the earth along the wall, with separate beds of daisies, flocks and gerberas. He planted a fresh layer of lawn grass and assiduously watered the lawn every evening. The green grass glistened with drops of water and the smell of wet earth wafted up to Emily every evening, as she stood at the window watching the mali at work. She saw the garden bloom once more. It warmed her old bones to think that there was beauty and laughter again in the apartment that she and James had lived in and raised their children. The lonely, empty feeling in her heart was assuaged a little.