Tara Dorabji likes to be known as “a Desi writer, arts educator, mother, and radio journalist.” She hosts a prime time public affairs show on KPFA’s Pacifica radio. Her articles, rants, poems and stories are published in journals, blogs, magazines, and anthologies including Las Girlfriends, Chinquapin, Project Censored, and Midwifery Today.
The hunger in his eyes was unquenchable. With effort she pushed back against her own desire. “Not today Babak, really we mustn’t be doing this here.” If it were London they could, but sitting here along the sea wall in Bombay, it was simply improper to show such displays of affection. Even worse, Babak was not Parsi. “I have a terrible headache and this terrible cramping,” Tanaz said.
Each monthly cycle was both a delight and a sorrow. She missed the rhythm for five weeks and feared that again she was in trouble. Today her world balanced out when she saw the familiar red stain on her sheets. Her body decided not to betray her, to tease her with the possibility of a child. Now that she was with Babak, she would have to get the pill on her next trip to London. Bombay was so backwards. Even though the pill was legalized in London in 1961, some eight year later, it was still terribly difficult to get in Bombay.
She felt Babak’s hand on the side of her neck. Her body proved impervious to his caress. “What is it?” Babak asked. She could detect a note of anger brewing. His hands moved across her knowing how to move around the trap of her words, unfurling her desire, until she was putty in his hand.
“Come on Tanaz baby.” Babak pulled her pouting lips into his. He swallowed her in a salty gulp, planting his hands firmly on her hips. She glanced around hoping no one was watching them. A few men stared as they chewed paan. Knowing better than to make eye contact, she focused on Babak. The curl of his hair, framed his angular jaw and his eyes widened into pools, sucking her in. She knew the rip tide of his mood too well. Soon enough she’d be lost at sea, bobbing and gasping for air.
“Come with me Tanaz. Why do you torment me so?” He clutched his chest. “Do you not love me?”
Tanaz slipped neatly into her role. Gently rubbing her nails along the inside of his arm, she kept her eyes fixed on the horizon, beyond the heaps of trash lining the sea shore. She could see the gateway of India, swarming with ant-like tourists. “Babak how can you expect to keep me when this is where you bring me? Day after day I only see you at the sea wall. And now you want to steal away a week with me to Mahabaleshwar.” Tanaz paused thinking of her childhood vacations to Mahabaleshwar. The red soil of the hill station stained the soles of her feet. Even this mountain escape could not fill her deep ache. She wanted more from Babak, more from life, but she was cursed. And Babak was no angel himself.
There was that time when she had been looking through his wallet and found the photograph of a beautiful, young girl with hazel eyes. Babak became infuriated, grabbing his wallet and throwing it across the room where it crashed into a glass vase that broke into jagged pieces. “Don’t you ever go through my things,” Babak said. When she questioned him, he cut her off coldly. “She is my daughter. You are never to look at her again. Do not question my past, or my family. Do you understand?”
She was tired of being the other woman. Tired of being hidden. Tired of being sick. “I need more Babak. I am not a young girl anymore, and I fear this flirtation can go no further.” As she spoke she reduced the pressure of her fingers lifting them off his arm.
Pushing the sleeves of his shirt up to his elbows, Babak stared wildly at the sea. “Is that how you see me—some mere affair—a tease?” His face crumbled into a sneer, a danger that caused Tanaz to lean in toward him, attempting to soften his mood. “Look, I cannot marry you now. You are my future. Tanaz, I can protect you from this world, but I cannot protect you from yourself.” A bead of perspiration dripped off of his forehead landing on the concrete wall, in the space between their hands.
It was getting more and more difficult to meet with Babak. Of course no one cared when her cousin dated a Dutch man. The acceptable choices were foreign or Parsi, anything to lighten the skin. While Babak was nearly of the same social caste, he was Muslim. The curse of being Parsi was all of these Aunties and Uncles fluttering about like a murder of crows, cawing about her business. Having gone strolling with Babak just one time, she returned to find Daddy sitting in his leather chair rubbing his eyes, looking quite strained. “With all the suitable men in Bombay, why must you go chasing fire?” Daddy asked.
In the end it wasn’t really Daddy speaking though. Vasna Uncle called Hilla Auntie, Hilla Auntie Called Dinaz Auntie, Dinaz Auntie told Minoo Uncle, who under advisement decided it best to call Daddy. Tanaz thought, In America I could walk around with a big, bird turd on my head and no one would see it fit to tell me. Yet in Bombay, I can barely go to the lieu without half of Colaba being notified. Despite the many eyes watching, there were still moments like this when she could slip out to meet Babak.
She stared out at the ocean and shielded her eyes. The stench of toilet paper burning from the nearby slums rose into the air. “How shall it be that we can live together without being married darling? What kind of scandal do you wish to start?”
“I have found a small flat off of Babulnath Road. I will purchase it in your name. Since it is a Parsi compound, you would not be able to retain it if we were to marry.”
Tanaz felt his breath tickling up her ear. “Aye, Babak, what am I going to do with you?” She rested her hand on his thigh. “You will have to come ask my Daddy, before we can move in together. You should come this week while my Mummy is visiting. She softens him.” She took his hand, her red nails gleaming against the cream of her skin. “Yes, you must come for dinner. You can ask Daddy after he has his sali ma margi. Have you had this dish? It is lovely Parsi chicken with potato straws.” Her eyes glazed over as she felt the familiar pain in her chest grow. “But Babak if we do not marry then we must never have children.” She tossed the words like stones into the sea.
He leaned toward her and sealed them with a kiss.
Tanaz peered in the mirror assessing the quality of her make-up. Babak would be coming for dinner soon. The damn humidity made it so difficult to apply powders. The yellow dress clung to her, shamelessly accentuating her curves. “Mummy.” Her voice a staccato whine pulsed through the house, becoming more urgent, until the sound blurred together. “Mummy-Mummy-Mummy-Mummy.”
“Yes, Tanaz-baby?” her mother came to the doorway bound in a shear turquoise sari. Tanaz could see the creases on her mother’s brow. “I have been helping to prepare dinner. Can you believe that cook had not even shelled the prawns! I swear your daddy has a house filled with incompetent help.” Her mother smoothed the golden embroidery along the turquoise edge of the fabric. Tanaz loved it when Mummy visited. At least once a year, Mummy and her husband Wolfgang would stay a month at Daddy’s house. It was how it was. Their family like no other in Bombay.
“Mummy I need help with my shot. I’m just feeling so faint. Please Mummy help me.” Tanaz slouched onto the bed. “I just can’t bare to do it right now.”
Ever since Tanaz was diagnosed with diabetes, the prognosis was clear. She would live a troubled life and never be able to have children. The doctor told her father, We fear that her condition is too delicate. You see with gestational diabetes, the fetus grows too large, endangering the mother’s and child’s life. It is under my strongest advisement that I suggest that Tanaz never have children. This was her curse—to be a woman without children.
Yet her body continued to teaser her. The first time she got in trouble was five years ago in the summer of 1964 when she graduated from college. She began throwing up in the morning, her breasts became tender mangos and the smell of garam masala grilling with onions turned her stomach. One of the servants quietly informed her father of her condition. Her father in turn summoned her mother from Mysore to Bombay. She and her mother went to London under the guise of seeking the top medical treatment for her diabetes. Instead, she had life silently sucked from her womb. The procedure always stayed with her—an eternal reminder of her failure to blossom. This secret bound her to her mother, as if she were still an infant bobbing in her womb.
“Oh darling.” Her mother came to her side. “Really, you must be strong. Did you take your shot this morning? You look pale as a sheet.” The sternness in her voice gave way to concern.
Tanaz shook her head. Her mother found the insulin, fire the needle into Tanaz’s arm. “Come Tanaz, let me comb your hair. The deepest sorrow for me has always been being separated from you and your brother. When your older brother died a piece of my heart broke, but it is the will of God.” Her words fell around them like mist off a waterfall.
Mummy reached for the hair oil, rubbing it into her hands until it saturated the skin. Her thin fingers burrowed into Tanaz’s hair, massaging the scalp at the root. “Some things you cannot question. I have seen death strike and know that there are some things a mother can never protect her child from.”
The mother and daughter crumbled over the cliff of time together. It is this memory that they come back to—an instinctual habit— like vultures circle in the sky. “I insisted that we bring his body to the Towers of Silence,” Mummy said. Tanaz remembered first being shown the Towers of Silence, where traditional Parsis bring the bodies of the dead for their bones to be picked clean by vultures and crows. “Oh how your Daddy was angered. Insisted that we were too modern for such nonsense, refused to go with me. ‘We are not heathens,’ Daddy had yelled at me, begging me not to leave our angel for the crows to pick the flesh from his bones. Tanaz darling, it was you who came with me. Can you remember?”
She had never been able to get over the death of her brother. It haunted her—a reminder of her own fragility. With her eyes closed, the memory formed easily. Her hand still chubby with toddler flesh fit snuggly into her mother’s. The priest stood before them in a flash of white against a cobalt sky. The thick smell of incense curled into their lungs opening the sky to the spirit world. The wail of her mother blared in her ears. The sound a siren that would never be silenced, followed by the simple disaster of her mother spilling onto the floor, fists pounding dirt. Tanaz reached with her little hands; grabbing the fabric she could not reach her mother through, the separation being more than she could stand.
Finally she erupted into tears, throwing herself into the hysteria that engulfed her mother, so she would not be alone.
“Tanaz. Are you listening to me?” Mummy asked. With a thick brown comb, Mummy began to spread the oil down to the tip of her hair. “I have lived through sorrow. It is the natural sorrow.” The words mixed with Mummy’s sweet scent. “After your father and I divorced, I wept every day for the first year. It is not natural for children to be without their mother. With all the gossip and lies that Bahar Auntie spread about me, I was banished from Bombay. I had no choice, but to leave. Sometimes I thought I was not strong enough to survive, but the promise of your visits kept me going.”
Even now Tanaz felt the guilt and shame settle into the pit of her stomach. That feeling that she was somehow culpable for being separated from her mother. Perhaps if she had been born healthy, they would never have gone to the doctors in London. The whole mess, the evil whispers of Bahar Auntie, the suspicion of her mother’s infidelity would never have pulled her mother and father apart. The aching for her mother was present even now with her Mummy’s attention entirely on her. Her parents were the only ones in her whole school who had divorced and the rumors burned like wildfire when Mummy remarried a German man.
Feeling the familiar voice of her mother, Tanaz closed her eyes. “Tanaz, I do not know why you were stricken with such a disease. You must take care of yourself.”
“I will Mummy. But will Babak take proper care of me?” Her mother put down the comb.
“Tanaz you must care for yourself. If you want to stay with Daddy or me, we can keep watch.” Mummy peered out the window, then continued. “But if you go with Babak, you must be ready to protect yourself. Are you ready Tanaz?”
“Yes, Mummy. I am ready.” With Babak’s love anything seemed possible.
“Darling, I’ll send Cook in with something for you to eat.” She patted Tanaz gently on the back. “I must make sure the dinner is prepared. Babak should be here anytime.”
Resting her head against the wall, she listened to the sound of her mother’s feet on the tiles as she walked down the hall. Her mother was right. It was time to be more careful. She flirted with death. On several occasions she became too exhausted to administer her insulin, slipping into a diabetic coma. One time last year she awoke in the hospital. But even after that Tanaz still forgot to take her insulin.
The pangs of hunger were sharp. Taking a deep breath, she hoisted herself up and walked to the kitchen in search of food. The sound of popping onions sizzled in the air and mixed with a general mayhem that Cook appeared from. He brought a lassi and samosa on a stainless steel platter. “Thank you,” Tanaz said glancing past Cook to Wolfgang, her mother’s husband who smiled at her revealing rows of crooked, yellow teeth that stank of liquor and cigarettes.
“What time is Babak coming?” Wolfgang asked.
“He’ll be here soon. I’m so happy that you are going to meet Babak. Oh Wolfang, here I am leaving Daddy all by himself. I’ve been worrying. You know Mummy has you, but who will look after Daddy when I am gone?”
Wolfgang cleared his throat. Despite his whiteness, he looked sloppy. Perhaps Vasna Uncle was right. There were many whispers that Wolfgang was not worthy of her mother. That he lost their money in risky business propositions. “Your father will be fine. It is you that everyone worries for.”
Turning to look at Wolfgang, Tanaz said, “There is nothing for you to worry about. Just take proper care of my Mum.”
Then the doorbell rang. “Oh Wolfgang, do you mind getting the door? I just have been feeling so faint.” Wolfgang walked toward the door. Tanaz ruthlessly grabbed the samosa jamming large bites into her mouth. Feeling the grease of the samosa dripping down her fingers, Tanaz expertly maneuvered the pastry shell so that none of the minced lamb or pea stuffing came out. Taking a gulp of the lassi she patted the corners of her mouth, the grease absorbed into the napkin staining it yellow with turmeric. Then she repositioned herself on the couch making sure to appear uneager.
Wolfgang came, followed by Babak, who was trailed by Daddy. Tanaz looked directly into her father’s eyes. His dark eyes met hers with piercing sadness. She was used to drinking in this sorrow. What caught Tanaz’s attention today was a glint of resignation, as if something in Daddy had become unhinged.
Leaning back into the couch, Tanaz lifted her chin to meet Babak’s eyes; there was no glean. His lips stretched taunt as he towered above her waiting for her greeting. To better his mood, Tanaz stood quickly, kissing both Babak’s cheeks and clasping his clammy hands. “Sit here darling.” She patted the sofa and pulled him next to her.
“Oh Babak,” said Mummy joining them by the sofa. “So you are the one that has captured our lovely Tanaz.” Her gentle smile appeared to melt something in Babak and he relaxed into the couch.
“Vasna Uncle always speaks of how lovely you are, but I thought he was lost in some childhood nostalgia,” said Babak. “Now I see he was being modest. Like so many men I’m unable to find the poetry to describe your true beauty.”
Mummy glowed. “Aye Babak, flattery alone will not allow you to snatch our dear Tanaz away from us.” She winked to ease her words. “Come now, let us eat.”
As they moved to the table, Daddy sat at the head, stoic. Hanging back, Babak waited for Mummy to seat him. Steaming plates that cook prepared filled the center.
As the sali ma margi was ladled atop the plates, the lovely ginger smell filled Tanaz’s nostrils. She sprinkled the potato straws on top of the curry. Daddy was smiling with the joy of a boy as he scooped the curried potato strips into his mouth with a crunch. Midway through his plate, Daddy set his fork down and spoke above the clamor. “Babak what is your intention for my daughter?”
Wiping the corners of his mouth with a napkin, Babak said, “Sir I have given it great thought. After consulting with Vasna Uncle, I am sure that business is stable enough that I can support Tanaz. Given the delicate issue of community support, I hope you will consider my declaration of love as sufficient in beginning our lives together. Vasna Uncle has always spoken of what a judicious and compassionate man you are. I assure you that my intention is for Tanaz to be happy.”
Tanaz felt her throat close. She had painted this moment over and over in her mind. The fierce declaration of love for her, the passion, perhaps even her father’s refusal of support. Babak’s love lacked the sparkle she envisioned. There of course was no ring for her finger. Biting her lip, she pushed back against her feelings. It was not practical; they could not live in the Parsi compound if they were to marry. The image of Babak’s daughter filled her mind. She could give him no children.
Was this the best she could hope for? A business arrangement where her suitor paid the mortgage, as if it were a lease of her love. How many installments would he make before it expired?
Tanaz sipped her water, letting the coolness relax her throat. There was only the gentle clanging of forks and soft chewing. Babak moved to fill the silence. “Sir, I will do my best to protect your daughter and care for her. It would be a great honor for us to share our lives together.”
Not looking at Tanaz, Daddy stared at Babak and then at his half eaten plate. “When do you propose to move?”
“Next week sir,” Babak said his confidence bolstered.
“If you so wish.” The words sealed the deal and Daddy rose with them, leaving his sali ma margi half eaten. “If you would please excuse me. I am feeling a bit tired.” He left the room without looking back, his silhouette dissolving in the hall.
“It is not your place to ask me where I am going,” Babak said. They had only been living together for three months, much of the time quarrelling. His eyes narrowed as he crammed clothes into a battered yellow suitcase. Tanaz focused on the bright silver locks, trying to decipher her reflection in them. “Who the hell do you think you are? Always nagging at me. I told you, I will return next Wednesday.” After adding in a final pair of chupples, he snapped the suitcase shut. The lock caught on a shirt and refused to close. Rocking on top of the suitcase, he tried to engage it with force.
The calm burned off. Tanaz snapped into rage. Standing up, she grabbed the nearest object, a bronze candleholder, and flung it at Babak. Narrowly missing him, it hit the end table and shattered a porcelain butterfly her mother gave her for the new place. “I am not your mistress. If you are going to see another woman just tell me.”
“You bloody fool. Look what you’ve done. Are you trying to kill me?” The veins bulged in his forehead. “I don’t have to listen to this garbage.” He paused deliberately letting the silence fill the room, grabbed the suitcase, and walked out the door.
Tanaz let out a shriek that slammed with the door. His footsteps faded into the clang of the metal gate of the elevator opening. Her ears listened for the return of footsteps. Only the sounds of blaring horns responded.
God damn that Babak, she thought letting the loneliness sink in. Several days had past. There had been no call, nothing from him. Finally in a fit of despair she decided to visit Vasna Uncle.
Putting on a chic, royal-blue dress with a dangerous V-neck, she sauntered into the Taj hotel’s jewelry shop. The air conditioning gave her goose bumps. She perched her shades on her head allowing her eyes time to adjust to the florescent lights.
Vasna Uncle stood upon Tanaz’s entrance, his balding head shone in the light. “Tanaz darling.” He moved toward her, pushing his spectacles up on the bridge of his nose. “To what do I owe this lovely surprise?”
His hands shook slightly as he embraced her, kissing both cheeks. It was more than she could bear. The kind frailness of Vasna Uncle unleashed something in her. Tears began to stream down Tanaz’s cheeks.
Appearing unflappable, Vasna Uncle took Tanaz’s hand and urged her to sit down. Pulling a hankie from his pocket, he handed it to Tanaz to blow her nose.
Vasna Uncle crossed the room and poured a cup of chai. “Here Tanaz take this.” Tanaz dabbed the edges of her eyes with the hankie. Rubbing her back gently, he said, “Tell me darling, what is wrong?”
Tanaz pouted her lips and batted her eyes, noting that Vasna Uncle was feebly stealing a glance at her cleavage. She did not blame him, as her new bra made it nearly impossible to overlook. “I am seeking your counsel. I just miss Babak so much. We had such a terrible parting.”
Giving Tanaz a scrupulous look as if ascertaining the nature of her inquiry and the depth of her knowledge, he said, “These responsibilities that Babak carries are from before he met you. You mustn’t doubt his love for you.”
Like a jaguar studying its prey before the kill, Tanaz realized that Vasna Uncle knew. She got that surreal feeling that one gets right before they pierce a truth that shatters their reality. Playing her cards wisely, she led Vasna Uncle with information she did not yet have. “But what of the girl? How shall I handle this Uncle?”
Breathing in sharply, Vasna Uncle appeared surprised at Tanaz’s candidness and knowledge. “Now that her mother has died, it is difficult to say. Perhaps she has some relatives. What is a father to do? How could she survive in Bombay with no mother and all?”
Taking a gamble Tanaz began to fabricate a story hoping that more information would be divulged. She had Vasna Uncle by the jugular now. “I told Babak to bring her back. Why does he refuse me?” Her voice rose.
“Tanaz darling you are too kind.” He exhaled appearing relieved that he did not have to hide information from Tanaz. “It is not so simple. On Babak’s wages he could not afford to put her in private school. These government schools in Bombay could be very dangerous for a young girl from the village. We must think of her future.” Pausing for a moment, he stared into space. “Come Tanaz, finish your chai. Let me see if I have something to cheer you up.” He moved behind the case, opened a drawer, and returned with a black bag.
“Oh Uncle, you are too kind to me.” Her eyes lit up. “You mustn’t spoil me so,” she said reaching for the felt bag. Inside was a pair of sapphire earrings, the blue as deep and clear as the ocean. Squealing with delight, she hopped up, embraced Vasna Uncle, and kissed his cheeks.
“They match your dress perfectly,” he said casting his eyes toward the ground.
She popped the jewels in her ears. “Oh thank you, they are simply exquisite. You are too good to me.” Tanaz slipped into the hallway heading toward the lobby of the Taj. The smell of new leather and recycled air caught in her throat.
Why had Babak not told her that his wife had died? This was their chance to be married. They could raise the child that she could never have. Babak never intended to marry her. He viewed her as a concubine kept in his palace on Babulnath Road.
The ringing of the phone echoed in her ear. Why did Mummy refuse to pick-up the phone? Tanaz felt her knees buckle under her. She let the phone drop to the floor and fell into the folds of her bed.
Babak had been gone for almost a week now. A bitter taste in her mouth remained, a scratchy feeling in her throat. Thinking of him made it difficult to swallow.
The edges of her mind blurred into the familiar yellow aura that preceded her comas. She was hungry and in desperate need of her insulin shot. There was that familiar longing for someone to comfort her—Mummy, or even Ruttie Auntie.
But Ruttie Auntie was dead, just like Yashar. Ruttie Auntie was her maternal great Auntie. Known as the Flower of Bombay, Ruttie was the young wife of Jinnah, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan. It was so sad how under the partitioning of India, her homeland was carved up like a stuffed pig. Yet even in this tragedy, there was great romance. Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, married a beautiful, young Parsi—the hidden mother of Pakistan. Having traced her lineage along her mother’s side, she proved she was related to Ruttie Jinnah by blood, not marriage. They shared the same DNA, spiraling through their fingertips. Yet, Ruttie Auntie died before Tanaz was born, leaving no one to comfort her—least of all Babak.
She remembered the words that Ruttie Auntie wrote to her love, Jinnah, on her deathbed, When one has been as near to the reality of Life (which after all is Death) as I have been dearest, one only remembers the beautiful and tender moments and all the rest becomes a half veiled mist of unrealities.
Tanaz thought, If only Babak could be as decisive in his love for me as Jinnah had been. Imagine taking a Parsi woman as his bride, during the creation of a Muslim nation. Love knows no boundaries. And here Babak lassoed her heart, only to strip it of meaning. She had never been his beloved flower, nor would she ever.
The yellow orb began to swallow Tanaz’s vision. Fighting to maintain consciousness, Tanaz saw the strangled phone dangling from its cord. Softly blaring, it cried to be returned to its cradle. Why had Mummy not answered the phone? Mummy is never there for me. Does she not realize that I could die?
Since moving in with Babak, Tanaz had become much better about taking her insulin on time. She had promised Mummy. Yet in this moment she wanted her Mummy to watch over her, for once to be within her reach. It took all of Tanaz’s strength to stay conscious. “Mummy!” She shouted at the room, at the phone off the hook, at the walls with the crack in the plaster and at the window with sunlight still streaming through. Reaching for her purse, Tanaz found sudden resolve to take her insulin. Her hand failed her. It was empty.
No. She mustn’t let her Mummy down. But Mummy could have children. Children. She would never have children. The coma swallowed Tanaz’s vision.
A slideshow with carefully projected slides played in her mind. There was Yashar peeling a hard boiled egg. Mummy and Daddy were holding hands, strolling along Marine Drive. They stopped to buy her a coconut with sweet meat. Yashar jumped in a puddle, mud splashed his socks. The hill station appeared, her feet stained orange. Mummy was brushing her hair.
The light of the projector got brighter, obscuring the images on the slides. Through a half veiled mist of realities Mummy was saying, “Do not go against your nature darling.” The sound of the projector’s reel overpowered her mother’s voice. Then there was Yashar, standing with Ruttie Auntie. They opened their arms to her.
Photo Credits : http://undiscoveredindiantreasures.blogspot.in
Tara Dorabji likes to be known as “a Desi writer, arts educator, mother, and radio journalist.” | Indian Literature in English