"Ma what's wrong?"
Ma was leaning her head against the side car window staring out, I hated it when she was like this. It always felt like she wasn't really here with me. In the car. Sitting. Papa was inside sleeping and Ma said that since I was making too much noise, we needed to get out of the house. But Ma didn't know how to drive. Other people walked and walked. But Dadi Ma always said it was indecent for a young woman to walk around without her husband.
But Ma used to say that Dadi Ma was too stuck in the past. Ma had brought the tape recorder that Uncle Doctor had given us last year. It had four fat batteries that fit neatly in the back. We were listening to Hindi songs and sometimes Ma sang along, but that night she was quiet. With us we had the gray blanket that Dadi Ma had brought back with her from India. It was itchy but Ma said if I didn't cover myself I would catch a cold.
"Ma, where are we going to go today?"
Ma was silent for a long time. And then she looked at me and smiled. "Okay, today we are going to the House of Chat for dinner. You be the waiter. My name is going to be, urn, Sonu. She wiped her face with her paloo and ran a hand over the top of her head and down her braid in one long sweep.
"Do I look all right?" she asked, moving her face closer toward the rearview mirror.
"Yes, you look beautiful, Sonu."
Sonu smiled and leaned back into the seat, smiling.
"What will you order, Madame?" I asked.
"I'll have one hundred gol guppa and pani, and maybe two bowls of chutney on the side."
"Green chutney, Madame?"
"Of course." Sonu made her cheeks full like a chipmunk and I laughed.
"When you eat two gol guppa this is what happens, waiter," said Sonu matter of factly.
"Here you go, that will be one billion rupees," I said.
"What! Impossible! You are trying to cheat me, I think." Sonu sat up in her seat and looked mad. She began to wiggle her finger at me and then she folded her hands across her chest and scowled.
"Not me Madame, I would never cheat you."
Sonu sighed and began to dig into her purse (and this was my favorite part.)
"Will you accept these life savers as payment? They will truly save your life."
"Well, I have to ask my boss."
"No. No. This is your only chance. Otherwise you'll miss out."
Sonu held out the candy and I said, "Perhaps I will take the red one." She handed me the red lifesaver and pulled out the green one for herself. Green was her favorite but I didn't think it tasted as good as the red. It was lucky we had different tastes. We sucked on them for a while, the sound of lifesavers hitting teeth loud in the quiet of the night.
"Where is House of Chat exactly?" Sonu took a deep breath. She looked at me and smiled.
"House of Chat is on Gopishwar Road in Delhi, It is where my Uncle used to take us kids to eat when we visited him. It was the best chat house in all of UP, They had the roundest gol guppa and the best pani, Not too sweet, not too spicy. Just perfect, And Reena, you should have seen the inside of the chat house. Like a palace! Not like here of course, but still, the latest songs would be playing, and a little monkey lived there too. I think he got all the left-overs. His stomach was so big..."
"I'm the waiter, remember."
"Stop making such a face, Reena."
Ma laughed and reached out to touch my cheek, the hardness of her fingertips gently loving my skin.
"Let's go there, again, then." I said.
Ma smiled and put her hands on the steering wheel. "Chub! Chulo!"
We are on our way to Gopishwar road, faster and faster we go... Ma tell me, where were you really going when your hands clutched that steering wheel, holding on holding on almost as though somehow, somehow, we were magically going to get there? Did you really believe that back then, Ma? Did you believe it as much as I did?
I hated it when Ma said yes to everything I said when I knew that really, she wasn't listening, "Ma," I said again, "I'm cold."
Ma looked at me as though I had suddenly appeared inside the car and I wanted to laugh at the O of her mouth. Sometimes when Papa snuck up on her to scare her, she looked the same way, and then everyone laughed. Even Dadi Ma, Ma reached over to the tape recorder and switched it off. The music died when she looked at her watch, "I'm sorry, beti, we can go in now. Come."
"Who put all this foolishness into your head about wanting to go here and there? Do you want to be like those loose angrezi women here? Chee!" Dadi Ma was looking at Ma out of the corner of her eye as she sat at the kitchen table. It was morning, and the sun was coming in through the window. When Dadi Ma sat in the sun, it made her hair look a soft yellow against the whiteness of her paloo, which covered her head. Ma was preparing chai for herself and Dadi Ma. She had cut up ginger to boil in the water, Then she had added spices so that the kitchen had filled with the smell of cardamom and cloves. Ma was staring into the water, allowing the steam to make little imprints of wetness on her skin. "My son married you so you could be a good wife and mother." Dadi Ma sniffed and shook her head.
"Ammaji, please. I won't be gone that long. Only a few hours a week. I can work with kids. The school said I could help out a little, maybe as a teacher's aide. Please Ammaji..." Ma stopped and wiped her face with her paloo. "I just need to get out of the house, sometimes." Ma said this last part quietly and then moved away from where the water was boiling to open the cupboard.
"Out of the house! For what! You go out shopping. You go out on walks with me and Reena. What else can you want? Already, I am spoiling you! You think I was allowed to go anywhere at all? No. I stayed inside at all times. All times!" Dadi Ma paused and then said, "Don't think I haven't seen you leave the house without your head covered," Ma stood still, so still, her hands outstretched in the air as she reached for two cups. Frozen. Dadi Ma hissed, "I am a good mother-in-law, It is my duty to keep my eye on you."
Ma was staring into the water, allowing the steam to make little imprints of wetness on her skin.
"Ammaji, it is warm outside, that is why I don't cover my head,"
"Warm. Hah! You think India isn't warm? All women must cover their heads! You want to be naked in front of all these men?"
Ma pulled her arms back down from where they were reaching in the air, and taking her paloo, very carefully, she covered her head.
"Ma?" It was black outside, and slowly I got up. Ma wanted to take me out again. I looked over at Papa who was fast asleep. His dentures were out, and his mouth was sunken in, his one eye forever open. When Papa slept, he scared me. He looked like a skeleton I had seen on TV once. I moved out of bed slowly, while Ma stood by the doorway. I could see her bangles, golden, glittering as the night light threw shadows across her. In her hand she held a blanket and a pillow. Before I reached the door she had already turned, moving noiselessly across the living room floor. When Ma wanted to be very quiet, she could even stop her bangles from singing. We walked past the living room, past Dadi Ma's closed door and out into the night. It was cool outside, and Ma turned to me and put her finger against her lips. Not yet. She opened the car door and with a quick glance at the front of the house, she hurried me inside after her.
"Where are we going now?" I whispered after we had climbed in.
"I'm driving you to your Auntie Lila's house," Ma said, as she covered us both with the itchy gray blanket.
"But she lives so far away."
"That's okay, hang on!"
And away we went.
"See that temple, Reena? That is where your grandfather and I used to go to pray. All those monkeys on the side wall, just you wait, they will steal all the prasaad! And see that school beside it? That is where I used to teach before I got married to your Papa, and was brought to live here."
"Did I ever tell you about how you got your name, Reena? When I first started teaching, my favorite student - her name was Reena. I thought it was so beautiful that I promised myself that when I had a daughter, that is what I would name her. But I really had to fight with Dadi Ma because she wanted to name you something else," Ma shook her head and said softly, "Her and your Papa, too much the same, The same. Your Papa is too close to your Dadi Ma, Reena. One day when she goes, it will cause him much, much pain, I am too afraid to even think of it."
"Where will Dadi Ma go?"
Ma looked at me and she opened her mouth and then closed it. "Just away."
And then she quickly said, "Did you know that your Papa lived with Dadi Ma until he was forty three years old?"
I shook my head. I knew that Papa was old compared to other people's fathers.
Soon, he said, his hair would go all white!
"How come Papa is so old, Ma?"
"Well, no one wanted to marry your Papa, Reena, because people are cruel." Ma reached over and covered my feet with the corner of the blanket. "It is because he had only one eye, He was very ashamed of that, you know. That is why we must never mention it around him. It makes him very sad."
"If Papa had only one eye, then how did he find you?"
"Me?" Ma laughed. "I never wanted to get married, you know. I was happy teaching. I was a good teacher, Reena."
"You were a teacher?" I tried to imagine Ma in front of a room full of kids, a blackboard covered with her writing. But I could not. Ma, a teacher?!
"I was very good, you know, I was everyone's favorite teacher. You know that seven times I won the favorite teacher award.
"But why did you go away then?"
Ma played with the pendant on her necklace, which always sat neatly inside the space between her breasts. She brought it out and looked at it for a moment. And then she let it drop again. "I never wanted to marry, Reena." Ma was quiet for a moment and then she said, "I used to run away."
I was impressed. "You used to run away?"
Ma laughed, "Every time I would hear that there was a man coming to see me, I would run away from the house. I would go and hide at your Auntie Lila's house."
"Really?" I was now Ma's biggest fan. I could picture her with a satchel on her back just like Bugs Bunny when he went on an adventure. "Then what?"
"Then nothing! I would come back home. Nobody would speak to me. They all said I was ruining my life."
"But then how did Papa find you?"
"Well...I was tricked." Ma smiled but the smile did not reach her eyes and we both snuggled deeper under the blanket. Ma, you made it sound like such an adventure. "You see, your Papa came with Dadi Ma to our house one day. I thought they were just old friends of your grandfather. Well at least, that is what my brother told me, So I stayed at home to greet them and after they had left, my Uncle and my brother told me that Papa was the man I was going to marry."
"Why didn't you run away again?"
"Where could I go? Your Auntie Lila couldn't support me. She was going to be married herself. Besides, my brother or Uncle would have found me and ... where could I have gone, Reena?" I don't know, Ma. Where could you have gone? Where?
"But now you have me and Papa, right?" Ma looked at me for a long time but said nothing. Ma, if you were running away again, would you take me with you?
I never wanted to get married, you know. I was happy teaching, I was a good teacher, Reena.
"Come, Reena, your Auntie Lila is waiting for us ..." Ma placed both hands on the steering wheel and leaned back. She closed her eyes so tight - but not tight enough because I saw one lone tear slip out and travel down her cheek. I reached out but it fell into the blanket, vanishing before I could catch it.
"Nonsense!" Dadi Ma was staring out the window, muttering to herself as Ma leaned over the stove, flipping rotis on the tava.
Ma said, without looking up, "I think it is a good idea. I am only mentioning driving lessons because Reena will be needing to go to school, things will need to be picked up." Dadi Ma turned around and pursed her lips together, much like Papa did when he was troubled or angry. This was the most I had ever heard Ma talk back to Dadi Ma.
"Besides, Ammaji. I am so tired, You know I have so much work to do. I must clean the house, look after my own child, look after the yard. I am so tired of..."
"You are tired of what?" Dadi Ma looked at Ma sharply and I wonder what caused the features of her face to sharpen, the tone of her voice to shift.
"Nothing. All I am saying is that it is getting hard to manage ..."
"Enough!" Dadi Ma was holding up her hand as she came into the kitchen. "No more car business. You just want to cause trouble in this house. I will tell you something," Dadi Ma said as she pushed Ma out of the way, and began to flip the rotis herself. "I had even more to do than you do when I was your age. And I managed all by myself. You are simply doing your duty. That is all. So why do you want to act like a man, like some crazy angrezi woman and begin driving lessons? What will people say?"
"But Ammaji ..." Ma took out the knife from the kitchen drawer and begun to chop onions. Cut cut cutting. Taking small handfuls between the tips of her fingers, she filled the dough with it so we could eat onion kulcha for dinner. "Who is going to say anything? We don't know anyone here. You had help from family, from friends, from servants, I have no one here. No one." You have me, Ma. You have me. Ma's eyes began to tear but Dadi Ma didn't say anything. And just when Ma was about to open her mouth again, Dadi Ma said through tight lips, "Wait for your husband to come home. We will see."
Ma, the night that you asked Papa if you could drive, you thought you had me. You thought you did. Ma, I don't know if I sensed the wild then, I don't know if that's what made me do it. Forgive me.
So why do you want to act like a man, like some crazy angrezi woman and begin driving lessons? What will people say?
Dadi Ma was shaking her head from side to side. And Papa was looking thoughtful. "What kind of a wife have you married?" Dadi Ma shouted. And then to Ma, "What kind of woman drives? It is indecent! Do you see me driving? Did your own Ma drive? Chee, chee, shame on you!" Dadi Ma smoothed out her sari and got up from the chair she had been sitting on. Papa had not even had a chance to take off his work boots, Papa had just gotten home from work. And the moment he had come through the front door, Dadi Ma had dragged him into the living room to ask his opinion. His face looked tired, but he was looking at Ma with the strangest expression in his eyes.
Ma said again to Papa, "Ji, it would be so much of a help to me. This way I could go anywhere I want. Anywhere." Anywhere.
And before Papa could say anything, I started to scream. "No, no, no, don't let her take lessons, no, no, don't let her! Say no! Papa, say no!"
When Ma will tell me this years from now, she will say that I screamed and screamed until I had no voice left. That Dadi Ma was so distraught, that Papa called Uncle Doctor in Edmonton because he was worried I would harm my throat. Ma will say, "I don't know what got into you back then, Reena. I just don't know." Don't you, Ma?
Well that decides it then, Papa said afterwards. "Your own beti doesn't want her mother driving. She wants you to stay with her. Enough of this kind of talk. Bas Bas. You have caused enough trouble for one night."
And now Ma is leaving the house. Without me. She is taking chances. Ma. I can not sleep through the night anymore and Dadi Ma says, a keera has infected my brain. Ma, each night I see you in my dreams and I hear you say, "Okay, my dear last stop." You kick me out of the car, back up and drive over me again and again and Ma, all I can see is the trail of colors in your paloo as you leave me. Your mouth is laughing and you are out of breath. Ma.
"Where is she, Reena?"
"I don't know Dadi Ma." Dadi Ma and Papa had finished eating their food. Ma had just slipped out the kitchen door. Again.
"This is crazy," Dadi Ma was saying. "What kind of a woman is she? She is beginning to act as bad as Sita. One of my sons marries a tramp, and now my other son has also married a bad woman. She acts like she has loose morals! Too much like the angrezi women here! She just runs out when no one is looking. Humph!"
"She can't have gone far," Papa said. He looked at the picture of Kali Ma above the kitchen table and shook his head. The picture of Kali Ma had belonged to Ma's father. She said it was so old, it was ageless. The frame was silver and black and inside, behind the glass was Kali herself, black and red and looming. She looked down at Papa, but Papa had already turned to face Dadi Ma. "Jasper is a small town. It is safe here, Amma."
"Safe?" Dadi Ma shouted. "How many murders do you read about everyday in that paper of yours? How many rapes? And you tell me your wife is safe? Even your brother takes better care of his wife than you do!" Dadi Ma stood up and went to the window. She rubbed her shoulders with the palm of her wrinkled brown hand and turned her back to us. The dishes were left on the table. For Ma, when she came home.
She thinks that she can just go off anywhere, anytime, she wants. She acts like she is not even a mother. I married a woman who doesn't even know how to be a decent mother.
Papa didn't say anything. He rubbed his hands over his face and closed his eyes. To me, he said, "Come." Papa took the car keys and pushed open the front door. "Are you coming or not?"
"Yes, Papa." I got up from where I had been sitting at the kitchen table and moved to put on my boots. When I opened the front door, I could see that he was getting into the driver's seat of the car. I ran outside. The sky was getting darker and the mountains were turning into shadows as I headed towards the car. Behind me I could see Dadi Ma still staring out the window and I was scared for Ma. "Get in the front," Papa said gruffly. He started the car and slammed his side door shut. We were off, looking for Ma, looking for Ma. We moved slowly down our street. It was quiet and the street was desolate and lonely, I could see people through their windows, hunched over their dining room tables, in front of the television. In Jasper no one bothered to close their curtains or lock their doors. Except us. Papa had bought three locks for our front door. Our landlady, Auntie Robbins had laughed, and said we had nothing of value to take. After she had left, Papa had called her a sali koothi. And Dadi Ma had smirked, Papa looked at me and said, quietly, "Where do you think you think she is, Reena?"
I think she may have driven somewhere, Papa, to Gopishwar road. To Delhi. She is eating in the chat house. She is at Auntie Lila's house, she is a teacher again, she is praying in a temple with Poopaji, she is ... "I don't know, Papa."
Papa circled each block, past the park and past the grocery store. Around and around we went. Ma, Ma, Ma where are you? "Your mother is a crazy woman, sometimes, Reena." Papa had circled the park now three times. His one hand was clutching the steering wheel, the other was touching his face. Lightly. Again and again.
I glared at Papa. Ma was not crazy. You are the crazy one, Papa. "She thinks that she can just go off anywhere, anytime, she wants. She acts like she is not even a mother. I married a woman who doesn't even know how to be a decent mother." Papa laughed and his laugh scared me. He gripped the steering wheel with both hands and shook his head. "Why did her family say yes to me, then?" I wanted to tell Papa about how Ma had been happy before, about how Ma had won the teaching award seven times. Papa, seven times.
"That woman needs to be taught a lesson." Papa looked over at me, staring deep into my eyes. I clutched the door handle, getting ready to jump out - jump out because his one eye was scaring me. "Wild animal, she is behaving like a wild animal, And don't you ever be like her, Reena. Ever."
It was darker now, and the lamps in Jasper had been turned on. Ma was still nowhere in sight, and I wanted to laugh and cry and laugh more than I cried and I wanted to tell Papa he would never find her. Because she was gone.
"Okay, I give up," Papa snapped. "Maybe she is inside shopping. Maybe she is already home." We circled back towards Turret street where Dadi Ma would be waiting. There was a quiet between us, and Papa said after a while, "You know, some days I just can't stand coming home." He lifted his hand off the wheel and rubbed his chin, Even in that moment, I could see his knuckles tense. We were in front of the house and Papa turned off the engine. We sat in the dark of the night, inside the car. We were both quiet, and for a moment I was reminded of Ma and myself, quiet in the car. Hiding. "Papa?"
But Papa was already opening the door and then slamming it shut. I opened the door on my side, and watched as he walked briskly into the house. His boots thump thumping on the front steps, and across the porch. The lights were on inside and I could hear Dadi Ma shouting as Papa opened the door. For a moment I wanted to close the door of the car and stay inside. With Ma, I knew she was in here. Hiding behind me on the floor of the car. Underneath the gray blanket. I knew, because I saw her through the side-view mirror, when we were driving. I knew because I was holding my breath and so was she. I knew because I had looked into her eyes and saw that Papa was right. A wild animal was hiding behind her eyes. And I was too scared to see it.