Thursday, January 21, 2010

Children of the Lie - Chapter Six


And The Water Fell Upon The Stone

The haze which murmured at the window spoke of dawn and wanting only to escape from the room, Jo crept from the house in search of the garden. Once more she had woken in fear, the day beginning with a start, bursting through in clammy, choking gusts, throwing off the oppressive sheet of night and rustling ominously through the cobweb cling of forgotten dreams.

The stairwell was even more dismal than usual, its sepulchral shadows battling against the frail light of a barely born morning. The boy was still sleeping upon his mat as she passed; hunched, rock-like under his grey drape of worn cloth. She burst through the door which led to the walled garden at the same moment as the sun claimed the day as its own. For a time at least, the world belonged to the lord of light.

Jo sank down between the roots of the banyan tree, as if wanting to be taken into its very heart, protected from the forces which tormented her. She leaned back into its knotted arms and tried to remember the dreams of the night before, but the images would not hold within the unforgiving light of day only the feelings came; the sense of evil, the smell of sickness and the fear ... hard and full, stretching soft, clammy fingers inside her throat.

"It was just a dream," she whispered to herself, holding the palm of her hand against her throat, as if to comfort. The tree seemed to wave softly above her, the branches bowing and rising, moving in some slow, early-morning ritual upon the warm, freshly spoken breath of dawn. There was a gentle whisper within the tree, a soothing sound which surrounded and comforted her. She began to relax, to draw away from the fading strands of fear, to know herself in the world made manifest.

This was the first time she had been in the garden. There was a different sense in its embrace than that she had previously had looking down from the verandah. Seen from above the garden looked open, inviting and wonderfully free, but now there was a sense instead of being shut in, wrapped around by the high walls, brought to order and held close. But there was within the prison, a strange sense of freedom.

The gardener must come soon. He would be shocked to find her here, curled up and almost hidden in the knotted feet of the tree. She told herself she would not stay long, just long enough to be soothed by the serenity of this hidden place. It was not really hidden, but bordered as it was on all sides with entry only through one wooden door, it gave a sense of the secret, as something protected, perhaps even sacred. The windows which overlooked the garden had all been boarded up. They must belong to the Patel's apartment. The rooms would be very drab and dark without the light. Mrs Mehta, it seemed, guarded her privacy no matter the cost to anyone else.

For one guilty moment, Jo thought that perhaps she was trespassing, but she had seen no sign forbidding entry ... then again, any notice would not necessarily have been in English. "Oh well, I'm here now," she said to herself, and to the roses which had begun to lift soft, bright faces to the sun.

The fact that she was perhaps not meant to be in the garden added a sense of awe to the moment, as if she had entered unknowingly into some holy place. It was strange that Mrs Mehta did not use the garden, but only came here each night for what seemed to be a tour of inspection. She did not use it as a garden was meant to be used, but then perhaps that was not its true purpose. This seemed not so much a place for the living, but somewhere that one trod softly for fear of disturbing the dead.

This must be the last resting place of the sombre Mr Mehta .... he who now called one wall of the living room his own. Had his ashes been scattered beneath these thorny bushes, or, had his grieving wife planted the roses after his death within the ash-strewn soil in honour of her handsome husband? For these blooms were the sign of the dying and the rising; of the tearing of the tender flesh of love and the falling of the sacred blood.

Mrs Mehta was not one to dance on the bones of the dead and so this was a closed and silent place. Death had been given priority over life and called the walled garden its own. Jo shuddered. The day was warm but she felt a breath of something which chilled. This separation of death from life was a futile, miserable thing. It gave death a power it did not deserve. More than anything, it dressed death in frightening robes for no other reason but ignorance. She had seen too many suffering through tortured lives to think that death could not be the most blessed gift of all.

There were those who saw death as evil but it was not so simple a thing to be so simply tagged. Evil, such a small word with an enormous embrace. Turned on its head it became ‘live’, the very opposite of what it was meant to be. So many things were said to be evil and yet evil was in the eye of the beholder. Ignorance was evil for it extinguished the revealing flame of awareness; madness was evil because a part of the self was kept imprisoned, hidden in the darkness of denial; selfishness was evil because it did not allow room for any other self to grow, but the greatest evil, or so she had come to believe, was the refusal of the individual to accept responsibility for the self. Without that acceptance we do not grow, but stay just as we are, like ashes strewn in a garden; death’s wind-kissed offering at the feet of life.

She knew what it was to be dead, to be without hope, condemned to survive on the dusty breath of blame. Everyone wanted to blame; some more than others. There were those who would accept no responsibility for life and so they dressed gladly in the robes of victims and took refuge in the formidable fortress which only those who believe themselves to be truly blameless can build. But it was no more than a safety of sorts and the price was pain, counted out daily in a sharp, dry shredding of self. But it was not only the imprisoned soul who paid the price, but those also, who were drawn by love, to linger beyond the reach of hell's high walls. The suffering was shared far and wide. The victim brought all within the broad embrace of pain.

She wanted to believe that people were more misguided than they were knowingly evil, but, suspected therein lay evil’s power. The fact that it lived and thrived fulsomely within the black ignorance which was inflicted, not only by the family, and by society, but also by the self. It was in this state of unknowing that most evil was done. And evil did not have to be brutal, it looked very good dressed in the robes of self-righteousness; it could be subtle, even appealing, and yet it was evil all the same.

Her mother lived the lie, embraced ignorance, because it eased the intolerable pain of life? She hated her for that, hated her craven cowardice. The world was full of people who would not bear the burden of life; refused to shoulder their own reality. They took what was and turned it into what they wished it to be ... at least they wrought such change in their own minds. Those who tinkered with the truth of life too greatly found themselves perilously lost between the world of fact and the world of fantasy; but most of those who chose to construct life in their own image, merely lingered by the gate which led into the meadow of madness. There was no need to plunge into its deceptively sweet-smelling depths as long as the lie remained workable.

There were those who possessed remarkable skills when it came to keeping the lie workable. It was why, thought Jo, with a surge of irritation, that her mother had made a saint of her husband after his death. It was a common enough thing to do. It is easy to sanctify the dead. They are not around to dispel the truth which has been constructed. Death wrought a purity upon her father which he did not possess in life.

It was ironic really, her mother had reviled her husband, for most of their life together, both to his face and behind his back and then, with the gift of death had come a re-birth. It was all about guilt, that tall, round-shouldered shape which sits, half-smiling, at the table of self-deception. Of one thing she was sure, she did not know this man of whom her mother now talked. Certainly, there had been shreds of the saint which straggled behind him, but it was no more than all people possessed.

No, his raw reality, in all its brutal but beautiful colour had been painted over, whitewashed, so that he could be drawn anew, in the clear, sharp, lifeless lines of black and white. Her father had died a total death for, with the passing of his physical presence, so too had gone the true memory of the man. The man whom her mother now called husband, the man she revered, had never truly existed ... she worshipped someone who had never been and denied life to the soul of the man called Charles Blackman.

Jo stood up, it was time to go. She was feeling angry just thinking about her mother and the morning was too beautiful to waste on rage. As she walked back through the garden door she could hear stirrings in the house. The watering would no doubt soon begin. The wind rustled behind her, whispering through the coiled hang of the banyan trees’ trailing ropes and scattering a few dried, red petals in her path.

As she turned the corner of the house she confronted a tangle of child, rope and dog. The boy had left his mat and embarked upon his first task for the day. Despite the confusion it was obvious that both boy and dog were keen for the walk to begin. Perhaps for each it gave a sense of freedom, however false. The boy gave a wide smile to Jo as he passed. His hair, black and tangled fell onto his pinched, small face. His thin limbs were encased in grimy khaki, shirt and shorts, with the latter allowing his skinny legs to enter the world from their ridiculously baggy depths. His eyes were wide and shining and he appeared remarkably well-rested given his uncomfortable bed. Both boy and dog were panting with anticipation as they disappeared down the driveway.

He looked so young, this boy-servant, this boy-slave, but at least with the dog he looked happy. This sleek-bodied Dalmation was probably his only source of love; dogs being completely oblivious to such things as caste. The boy was no more than nine although he could have been older, his size dictated more by the lack of food than years. Jo had seen him scrubbing the Patel’s front step from time to time. Anne told her that one day Mrs Patel came home early and found him watching television. She had beaten him. The screams had been awful. So much noise from such a small stick of a boy.

If only both boy and dog could run away but such things do not happen in India. There is nowhere to run. A life on Mrs Patel’s doormat was preferable to life in the gutter. As long as he worked for her he might be malnourished and even maltreated but he would not starve.

When Jo looked at the boy with foreign eyes she saw a child, a human being, someone in need of love, care and protection. His was a life just beginning and it was the responsibility of society to ensure that he had a home, food, education and someone to tuck him up at night. When Mrs Patel looked at the boy she saw an inferior being, someone who had brought this life upon himself because of misdeeds in previous lives. This life was his just punishment and she, who was obviously of far greater merit as a human being, had as her due, his services. She did not see a child, she saw a servant.

It was not that Mrs Patel meant to be cruel. Cruelty was simply not something to be considered. One could be cruel to members of one’s own family, one’s own community, but to define one’s actions as cruel necessitated the recognition of the other, the person to whom one was supposedly being cruel, as a human being ... as someone who could be judged in the same manner as one’s equals. Such a thing was impossible for Mrs Patel to conceive, let alone consider. Those who occupied a lower strata of society were her inferiors, as this boy undoubtedly was, and in terms of her own world were simply not real. That they existed in a physical sense was obvious... there were enough results from their meagre labouring efforts to testify to that, but as far as Mrs Patel and all the millions like her were concerned, they did not exist as human beings.

This denial of the selfness of others was the one aspect of the caste system which enabled those within it to perpetrate the most terrible atrocities upon all who were designated as inferior. It is the same denial of self which enables people to destroy all that is within themselves, which is not considered acceptable. It is the denial of the darkness within each and every human heart which leads to the lie that evil is outside of us and that it resides within all those things and all those human beings which constitute ‘other.’ It is the same denial of selfness which continues to foster all human abuse in the world and which has supported all barbaric acts committed against others since the beginning of time and which, in India, is enshrined as a religious truth.

In one out of three suburban homes in India these faceless, forgotten children will be found. They will be washing, scrubbing, cooking, cleaning, fetching and carrying with as much strength as their frail bodies and limp wrists can muster. Such a child, usually male, will have come from a village as part of a desperate bid to survive. He continues to be exploited because the poverty and squalor of so much of life on the sub-continent makes it possible. He will continue to be abused because the values of the society allow it.

And those who employ these children, like Mrs Patel, feel comforted with their own benevolence at having rescued a child from slow starvation. They will talk about how much they have done for the boy; the clothes bought, even though he continues to wear the same worn and dirty garments, the education given ... even though he never learns to read or write, the healthy food provided ... even though he remains dangerously delicate, even emaciated. But Mrs Patel feels good about such things and she is no hypocrite. These are things which she truly plans to do, even as she speaks, but today she is busy and cannot go out to buy new clothes, and today there is so much work for the boy to do that there is no time for lessons, and today she had not had time to shop and so there will just be a few scraps left for the child... but tomorrow, then it will all be done.

The car stopped at the lights. A small boy, barely covered by the rags which dressed him, scampered across and began rubbing the windscreen with a filthy piece of cloth. Lawrence waved him away, but the boy, not easily deterred, smiled even more boldly and flicked more energetically with his black scrap of fabric. Jo watched the boy. He was one of a large group which lived beneath the overpass, squatting by day on the traffic islands, living their lives amongst the scream and choke of a busy interesection.

The community seemed mainly to consist of women and children; perhaps the men were employed elsewhere, returning only at night, like other fathers, to eat with the family at the gutter’s edge and then to curl up, in a wrap of rags, in a neat row along the footpath. To the children fell the task of begging, and with each halt in traffic they would flock around the cars, like small ungainly birds, tapping and smiling and entreating. The women watched them, nursing their babies, scratching at the itch of unwashed skin, seemingly unconcerned as the children, some barely more than toddlers, weaved and danced and worked their way through the ominous hug of traffic.

Jo shook her head. That children should live such lives seemed inconceivable and yet was the boy on the mat any better off? She had no answer for her own question. These children of the street would be cuffed and kicked by their parents and also by the crime lords who owned their trade in beggary but they looked happier than the boy ever did. There was a strange sort of freedom to their lives. They knew what they had to do and they did it and perhaps they believed, as Mrs Patel’s servant could not, that one day it would be different. But more than that they had each other, for they roamed in small packs like friendly puppies while the boy downstairs had no other child to call a friend, no-one else who knew what it was like to live as he did, except the dog, who no doubt gave just enough licks of love to the small, lonely, frightened child.

The car turned at the side of the Shalimar Hotel and inched up a long, snaking drive until, turning at the top, they passed three soaring high-rise buildings and finally came to stop in front of a row of two-storey houses. “We are here madam!.” Lawrence spoke the words in the same instant that he jumped out of the car and was now hovering by her open door.

“Well, I’m glad you knew where you were going Lawrence because I certainly didn’t”

He beamed at her. “Oh yes, madam. I have been here many times. This is the house of Mrs Singh. I have taken you correctly”

“Thank you Lawrence.” Jo smiled back at him. He was an engaging character and she had become fond of him in the short time she had been in Bombay.”If you would wait for me please.”

Lawrence nodded, his head moving up and down at least half a dozen times, his bright, white teeth bared in an even bigger smile at the prospect of an hour or so to drink tea and chat with the other drivers downstairs in the garage.“I will be waiting madam. You must not hurry. For you I will wait all of the day,” He beamed again, blindingly so and Jo found herself chuckling as she rang the doorbell. The door was soon opened by an unsmiling maid and Jill came running down the stairs as Jo walked up the few steps from the front door. “Jo, how lovely to see you. I am so pleased you could come.”

“Thank you for asking me,” Jo replied as she was ushered through a set of double doors into the living room.

“ Do sit down and I’ll organise the coffee,” said Jill.

Jo sat on one of two large sofas, upholstered in a dusky pink linen, which faced each other at one end of the room. It was an enormous room, made even more so by the endless soft gloss stretch of marble floor. Despite the fact that nothing was out of place there was a relaxed, homely feel to the room with large pots of pink bougainvillea and white jasmine placed here and there and stacks of glossy magazines piled on coffee tables, with more books and magazines in ordered heaps upon a scattering of polished, wooden boxes. In one corner stood a gigantic chest, ornately decorated with iron and brass moulding. From the heavy metal locks dangled a large, brass key. It spoke of a time and place when rooms loomed more than large enough to swallow huge pieces of furniture for no other purpose than beauty. It was probably also used for storage but any of the short, skinny Indian servants would have needed a ladder to get down into the thing to retrieve whatever it was the master wanted.

“I see you’ve spotted Nicky’s folly,” said Jill, as she placed a large tray down on the coffee table


“The Gujarati trunk. If we ever move we shall have to turn it into an en-suite or something. Perhaps Nicky and I can be buried in it although we would have to sit up side by side which might get a bit tiring through eternity.”

Jo laughed. “It is magnificent, but I can see what you mean. You’re not likely to leave though are you?”

“Probably not. I think we’re here for the duration,” Jill replied with only a shadow of grimace firming at the edge of her lips. “How do you like your coffee?”

“Milk please, no sugar. But you do like it here don’t you?”

“Yes and no, it depends on the day, sometimes on the hour. Living here is like having an unpleasant relative whom you do not want to know sometimes, but then neither does anyone else and yet, because they are yours, so to speak, you feel that you must defend them. Sometimes though we spend too much time defending and too little time living. But that’s the nature of this beast.” She grinned weakly and sipped at her coffee.

“I can see that,” said Jo, not sure that she could but feeling it was the right thing to say at the time.

“It’s just so hard to be fair when you’re judging all the time.” Jill reached across to offer the plate of thinly sliced fruit cake. “I mean, I suppose I shouldn’t judge, that is, I’ve made my life here and as my mother would have said;’you’ve made your bed, well lie in it.’ But I always seem to need answers and this is one country where there often aren’t any. This is just the way it is. In so many ways things are the way they are because the people are who they are and believe what they believe. I was brought up to believe that people have the right to choose who and what they want to be., but I’m not so sure anymore.”

“Yes, it’s hard to think that people would choose to live ... well, the way they live here,” said Jo.

“Well whatever choosing we do is no doubt unconscious and works for reasons that perhaps we don’t understand. My problem is that I think I should be able to understand things and that’s not the way it’s done around here.”

“I’ve gathered that,” laughed Jo, “and I’ve only been here a short time. I’m surprised it has taken you so long.”

“I think I’m stubborn,” said Jill, not looking at all contrite, ” that has always been my problem.”

“ I would imagine that determination could be an asset here,” ventured Jo.

“Hmm, more a source of greater frustration. I really must learn to live the Indian way or I am never going to get anywhere. You have to be able to close your eyes to reality, that’s the only way life becomes bearable. People are very good at that here, or bad, depending upon your perspective. That’s why they are sincerely surprised and hurt when others criticise them for the filth, the corruption and the countless injustices which exist, because, for many of them, these things are often not even recognised, let alone acknowledged. It is a mental and emotional blindness in a way and you can only understand it when you see that the world out there is the only one that most of them have known. It doesn’t shock them because that is the way life has always been.”

“But there are people who travel, people who know that life can be lived in other ways, in better ways,” said Jo.

“True, and they are happy to agree with you as long as you don’t make too much of a fuss. They will become angry, even if they don’t show it, if Western eyes and Western questions ripple their pond of deception too much. If anything, when they travel, they prefer not to see too much because it makes life too hard. What you do not see does not exist! There is this paradoxical combination of inferiority and superiority which afflicts India. They want to believe they were a great civilization and that they still are and that means some things simply cannot be seen. Fortunately it is easier for them than it might be for us because this is a society which chooses its own truth ... whatever is convenient to the moment. Fact and truth have nothing to do with each other in India. They may of course be one and the same but that has more to do with circumstances than choice. A ‘truth’ is something that you wish to exist as a fact and whether it does or not is beside the point. A ‘fact’ is something which may well exist, both as a truth and a fact, but which can be ignored and therefore, to all intents and purposes, no longer exists.”

Jill smiled at the look of confusion on Jo’s face. “Are you with me,?” she asked.

“Yes, I think so,” said Jo slowly, her mind trailing along behind the words,” although there’s something crazy about it all isn’t there?”

“Perhaps to you, but not to an Indian because they have a different way of thinking. They understand it perfectly, at least, I think they do. It’s not the most productive mindset though because when you live by lies and other people challenge your truth then you can only deal with it by descending to an even lower level of self deception. The lies then become so great it is impossible to remove them, or to remember what, if anything, ever lay behind them. The lie becomes the truth, or what is called truth, and all that lives behind the lie becomes something unknown, something alien and eventually, something to be feared. The lie abnegates responsibility and sanctifies inaction.”

Jo nodded in agreement.”Yes, I’ve been there and it’s not a nice place.”

“Well, I think we’re all a little mad in this country,” laughed Jill. “It seems to be the way of things. Such deception is not unique to the Indians, we all live our own version of the lie, it’s a matter of degree. It’s just that here it has become part of the national psyche and it is the norm rather than the exception.”

“It doesn’t sound easy but it does sound as if you’ve made the best of it.” Jo actually thought it sounded awful and she wasn’t at all sure from the look on Jill’s face that she had made the best of it, but it was the only thing she could think of to say. Ann would have said she was being dishonest and doing what the Indians did all the time but Jo preferred to think that she was merely holding up her end of what was an already unwieldy conversation.

“Oh, I’m happy enough,” said Jill, answering a question which had not been asked. “I have a lovely husband, three gorgeous little girls, a beautiful house and a very full life.I am more than grateful for all that I have.”

“So you acquiesce in order to make the unworkable, workable.”

“Good heaven’s no,” said Jill, shaking her head vigorously. “Acquiescence is the cultivation of the inferior. I do not simply submit. I go with the flow to a large degree, that is inevitable, but I seek always to change what I can. I refuse to simply acquiesce, to accept things as they are, like some dumb, limp doll.” Jill sat upright and reached out for the coffee pot. Any suggestion of limpness was quickly dispelled as she sat bolt upright on the couch and leaned over to refill the coffee cups.

“I think it’s harder being an Australian,” said Jo quietly.”I mean this is just so very, very different to what we know.”

“Yes, you’re right. It’s such a contrast ... one of the newest nations on earth and one of the oldest. We just don’t realise how free we are in Australia until we travel. I’ve been to Europe, England, to America and of course Asia but from everything I’ve seen people just haven’t mixed as well and as easily as they have done at home. Canada probably comes close but then they have that awful problem with Quebec. I don’t think it’s because we’ve done anything particularly clever, it’s just the way it is.”

“Yes, the lucky country,” agreed Jo. “It seems such a silly term and yet at the end of the day I agree with you and think it is what it is more because of luck than good management.”

“It should make me more tolerant,” said Jill, chastened. “If we can’t claim the credit for what we are then I shouldn’t be blaming others for what they are. It’s almost an aberration really, this harmonious mixing of people in Australia. Oh, I know things are less than perfect with Aboriginal people but even that is better than anywhere else. When I look at the division between people in this country it scares me. You have communities which have remained separate for thousands of years and yet at home we expect people to assimilate within a generation. The miracle of it all is that it happens!”

“I have a friend who says it’s the energy in the land,” smiled Jo,.”she says there is something benign about the land in Australia.”

Jill laughed, but not dismissively. “Who knows. Your friend might be right. Whatever the reason we should be grateful. When you look at the awful hatreds in India, and not just here, it makes you realise just how precious that comparative harmony of society is. Most Australians don’t appreciate the uncommonness of what they have. The peaceful mixing of peoples is not a norm.

“Why do you think it is the way it is?” asked Jo.

“Maybe we’re just too new and we haven’t learned how to hate each other yet.” Her tone was dark, sour and she shook her head even as she finished speaking. “No, I don’t mean that. Just a nightmare which haunts me sometimes. I’ve been here too long and am in danger of thinking that people are meant to be at war with each other.”

Jill stirred absent-mindedly at her coffee for a time and then, having gathered her thoughts more carefully, said: “I guess there are a lot of reasons and one of them is that Australians are few in number and we have done most of our growing in the age of communication. We’ve been able to keep in touch with each other, to learn what the other is doing and haven’t been able to develop in isolation. We also believe different things and one of the most important is that we believe in the ‘fair go.’ We believe in giving people a chance, not judging them up front, allowing them to join in with us if they want and if they do, well then they’re accepted, they’re Aussies. That doesn’t happen in most other places. “

“We also believe that ‘Jack is as good as his master’,” said Jo,”which means we don’t have any time for people who would like to think they are superior. “

“Yes, that has no doubt helped to damp down the development of any really entrenched class sytem and that’s a blessing in itself.” Jill kicked off her soft leather sandals and drew her feet up under her on the couch. “The thing I really like is that generally, and there are always exceptions, people judge you by what sort of person you are rather than by your position, your job or how much money you have. “

“We still haven’t really come up with the why,” said Jo.

“No, and we probably won’t. Perhaps it was our convict beginnings which gave birth to the egalitarian qualities which have made it a society which has a greater tolerance for differences, a greater opportunity for equality and a greater absence of class feeling than other nations. It’s not perfect, far from it some might say, but it has to stand as one of the best experiments yet in multi-cultural nation building. And there’s the sun ... all that sunshine must be good for the soul!”

Jo laughed. “It probably could be something as simple as sunshine but then why hasn’t it worked in India?”

“Ah yes,” sighed Jill. “India, my India. A country which has been torn apart by internecine hatred and probably will be again. When it comes to the peaceful assimilation of peoples world history is not on our side. This harmonious blending of peoples with which you and I grew up is not the rule, it is the exception. It’s a rare and precious thing and there’s nothing to say it will continue.”

“Not even in Australia?”

“I have learned,” said Jill, carefully forming her words,” that in this life it pays to take nothing for granted. Most human beings are very quick to mistrust, to blame, and even Australia might find that the larger the population becomes the less tolerant people become. I can’t help but think that India is the worst that you can get and communal division may yet destroy it! Oh, it’s not the only one, the world is full of divided societies. Even America , which likes to think it does everything better than anyone else is in a mess socially. America sees itself as a melting pot but it isn’t, it’s more like India than it is like Australia..Things will get a lot worse there before they get better so what hope does India have? “ Her voice ended on a cold, hard note. She had asked a question but knew there was no answer and so took no notice of Jo’s silence, sipping instead at her now-cold coffee and staring out through the French doors which led to the patio.

She seemed, thought Jo, to be much too reflective than was comfortable or wise in a place like India. Behind the composed facade lived a fearful woman, one who feared not only for India but for the land of her birth and for the fate of the world in general. It was natural. Her children were very young and few parents did not reflect upon their children’s future and by extension, the future of the world in which they lived. Such reflection must be even more intense when the future of one’s children lay in a country such as India. She was here because she loved a man and while many believed that love would smooth a path through the most treacherous of obstacles, the truth was, as often as not, it just got in the way. She watched as Jill ran her finger around the rim of her cup.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” said Jill,”we do have one other thing in our favour in Australia. We have as our myth, the battler, he or she who stands and fights against all odds and who is not necessarily successful, nor expects to be, but who refuses to bow down, refuses to cow in the face of insurmountable odds. That and the fact that we are the best case for penal rehabilitation yet,” she added with a laugh.

“Perhaps though,” said Jo,” it is less an argument for penal rehabilitation than an argument for hope. Despite terrible hardships, the people had the freedom and the space to make something of themselves. They were allowed to become other than what they were ... they were allowed to hope, to change.”

“Yes, you’re right. It’s hope that’s missing in India because people are locked into their lives by the caste system, by what their religion tells them is allowed. They’re all boxed up in batches from birth to death and there’s no way out. You are stuck with your own kind and separate from everyone else whether you want to be or not. There’s no community consciousness here, no sense of needing other people unless they are of your own kind. The difference with Australia is that in the early days everyone needed each other, whether convict, jailer or free settler and so an alliance was formed, based on a mutual need to survive. Embedded deeply in our national psyche is a belief that we need each other and that if we all stick together things will work out. That must go a long way toward ironing out the wrinkles in a mixed bag of cultures. “

“But not everyone came of convict stock,” said Jo. “There would only be a minority in the country now who could claim convict ancestors.”

“That’s true, but it’s not important. That is where the nation had its beginnings and where our myth began. That is the myth which all Australians inherit, no matter what their ancestral heritage may be. When you have a sense that everyone is needed, that everyone is important, that each is dependent upon the other, then you have the basis for a truly equal society.”

“Virgil Hetherington was saying something similar the other day,” said Jo. “He also believes it’s our myths which make us what we are.”

“Yes,” smiled Jill, “I’ve got a lot of time for Virgil. He doesn’t say much most of the time but when he does it’s worth hearing. “

“ I suppose the other thing about the Australian psyche,” said Jo, is that we also know where we began and that’s important. We haven’t forgotten our beginnings.”

Yes,” replied Jill, ”in the gutter, but we remember, at least unconsciously, what it is like to be there. We know what we have achieved and we know too how easy it is to fall so low. Maybe that’s why we believe in the battler and the fair go. We know that the very worst of the world can be given a chance and can grow to be something bright and good.”

Outside on the patio the crows gathered, cawing and hopping in a gleam of black across the pure white marble. Both women turned to watch them. Some rice had fallen from the heavens and scattered across the verandah and it was this which they had come to retrieve.

“Manna from heaven,” said Jill with a cold chuckle,” at least it is for the crows. To us it’s just garbage!”

“Garbage,” said Jo smiling,” is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Well, it certainly is in this country,” laughed Jill in reply,” and there’s every chance that’s exactly where you will get it !”

“Does it really bother you so much, India?” asked Jo hesitantly.

Jill looked up with a start, guilty, as if caught out unexpectedly. “Of course not. I just say things like that to keep myself sane.” She shrugged and chewed her lip. “Is it that obvious? “ Jo nodded.

“Oh well, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t and today it does but mostly it’s okay but often it isn’t. Does that answer your question?”

“Sort of, but not quite.”

Jill looked at her, silent, thinking, as if deciding how honest she could let herself be. “Look, it really is okay. The thing I find most difficult is their attitude to truth, or rather the lack of it. I find that so frustrating. It’s as if there is nothing solid on which I can build ... it’s all just sand and whatever you construct can fall down in an instant. I’m married to an Indian and people expect me to feel the same way about the country as they do, but I don’t. I ask questions which they would never think to ask, demand answers which they would never wish to hear. Sometimes I wish I could be like them but then I wouldn’t be myself. I’ve tried so hard to understand it all, read the books studied the history, pored over it for hours and still I’m confused. I’m a bit of a failure I suppose.”

“No, not at all,” said Jo quickly.” I think you’re wonderful. You don’t run away from what frightens you ... you face it and try to understand it.”

‘Well, let’s be honest about all this. It’s not so much that I’m brave but that if I were to run away from India chances are I would be running away from my husband and children as well. There’s not a lot of choice in it from my view of things.”

“Perhaps not but you are trying to understand it and that’s important.”

“Trying is the operative word,” grimaced Jill in reply. “It’s a strange place, especially for someone like me who is trying to drag facts out of fantasy but I’m fighting a losing battle and the crazy thing is that I know it. This is the land of fantasy and fact is no more than inconvenience. They don’t even have a strong historical tradition but then when you can make it up to suit yourself I suppose you don’t need it. The fact hunters, people like me, are sifting through thousands of years of fictional silt, trying to retrieve small, lost shards of truth ... God knows why. The people here don’t care. They are perfectly happy with what they know. What is called history in India is often no more than myth but they see them as one and the same whereas we Western nitpickers want to heap historical facts on one side and mythological truths on the other. “

“But if it makes you feel better .... helps you to live in India .. then it’s worth it isn’t it?”

“God knows, I don’t, all I know is I keep doing it ... scrabbling around in this search for something called truth. My problem is that while I know truth and fact can be one and the same thing I also know that in India it is not necessarily the case and I happen to believe that while you can find facts without truth you cannot find the truth without facts. I mean, India’s mythical past is so fantastic it surpasses anything else known in other parts of the world. The trouble with treating mythical past as historical is that the real world can never hope to cope with the imagined world. It always falls short. Sometimes I wonder if this is an ancient nation in decline or the shreds and shadows of one which never truly existed! The only thing which keeps them together is the shared myth which seems to transcend the division between north and south and that between Muslim and Hindu. It’s something that they seem to have in common anyway.

“So what is this myth?”

“Oh, it’s a bit like the American myth ... it’s about being abused and humiliated by others and yet, eventually, rising to the top, where you can wreak just revenge. Everyone in India wants to be treated like a maharaja, a god even. It’s their great dream to be looked up to, fussed over, feted and pandered to. The mannerisms that we find fawning and obsequious they think are wonderful because it makes them feel superior. They can believe for a time that the dream has become reality and that they have the power of the gods. Money helps the dream last longer of course so perhaps that’s why this is such a materialistic society. Mammon reigns in India and despite what dreamy tourists think the goal is to gain not just money but the power which it brings.”

“I suppose,” said Jo, “in a country like this money is the only thing which keeps you out of the gutter.”

“Hmm, You could say that, but its only a small part of the answer” said Jill, sounding unconvinced. “It’s an initiation of sorts and it’s also about battling against the odds but unlike the Australian myth the important thing is not the striving, but the succeeding. What counts is gaining power so you can take revenge on all those who have wronged you. It’s about having money and prestige and as in America, in India the glory lies in reaching the top and no-one cares how you get there. While in America you might even aspire to the very top, to become President, in India the top is more likely to be at the head of one’s own caste or strata of society. The trouble with this sort of myth which gives glory only to those who succeed is that there are countless millions who are by necessity badly bruised, if not destroyed by failure. There is only room for a select few at the top. That’s where Australia is lucky because its myth gives comfort for many and we reserve the difficulties for those who reach the top. “

“But surely myths change and develop over time?” asked Jo.

“Yes, they can but often they become entrenched. We make it harder for ourselves if we don’t take the time to find out which particulur myths we are making our own both at a personal and cultural level. If we don’t make our myths known, come to understand them and become aware of their power in our lives then they will serve to diminish us rather than to expand our potential. A myth is a living thing, a belief structure which exists at the subconscious level and which changes and grows, or becomes calcified, like any living thing. Our myths are our internal gods and we ignore them at our peril.”

“Yes, I think I know what you mean. I have a sense that for much of my life I have done just that..”

“Most people do, it’s human nature,” replied Jill ,” and God knows we’re all too human. Come on,” she added, standing up and slipping her shoes back on, ”I’ll show you around the house. I’ll take you outside for a look at the garden first. It’s quite pretty although it will look a lot better in a week or so when the monsoon arrives. It all gets a bit dry and brown at this time of the year.”

Jo followed her out through the glass doors onto the broad expanse of terrace. At the far end, resting in the shade of a very large terracotta pot, was a black and white cat. It stood up as they emerged and stretched its mangy body, shaking the flab of its much birthed belly as it did so. "I think she has had more than her fair share of kittens," said Jo, pointing in the direction of the cat, which looked for all the world as if it had been bitten and chewed by something rather large and hungry, and had then been spat back out, having been judged not only tough, but downright inedible.

"Yes, she has rather adopted us," said Jill. "She just wandered in one day and marked that particular spot as her own. She won't let anyone come near her of course. She is quite wild. But she seems to like it here. I imagine it is one spot where she is safe from the stray dogs."

The cat began a slow saunter down the length of the terrace, passing just a short distance in front of them as she did so. She looked neither right nor left, intent upon whatever path she had chosen. There was no doubting that she not only knew her own myth, but that she was happy to live it. Dishevelled as she was, with the ragged remnants of a tail, and one shredded ear, she still had about her, a noble air. There was no royal sheen to her tattered coat, but she walked still with the same pride which accompanied all those of her kind. Hers was a nature both elusive and independent and it was she who could prowl through the night and see in the blackness. Hers was a sacred and regal past and it lived and breathed within her. With one quick jump as she reached the end of the terrace, she disappeared.

When they came to the last door, on the upper level of the large and airy house, Jill gave a small knock before turning the handle. As they walked into the room she smiled at Jo and said: "Force of habit. I know it doesn't make any difference to her and the nurse is here anyway, but it doesn't seem right to walk into someone's bedroom without knocking."

The old woman sat, in the middle of the room, on a chair of pale, but royal ash, with a high back, woven, reedlike. A sash, from an old chenille dressing gown was tied around her waist to keep her from falling. Her feet, white and bloated with swollen veins rested on a piece of foam rubber and a cushion sat squashed between her bony knees to stop the flesh from being rubbed raw. Her chin had fallen forward onto her sunken chests. It was hard to believe that there had ever been breasts on that broken body, but there must have been, and they would have suckled the child who now stood as a woman beside her mother's stilled body. The old woman's thin, grey hair was pulled tightly back, almost as if in an effort to hold together what was left of the rotting fragments of her brain. A rubber tube was inserted in one nostril and it rose imperiously into the air high above her forehead, taped in place and crowned with a plastic vial into which the nurse poured liquid.

A small girl squatted at the old woman's feet, a blink away from the bone-thin legs with their pale, slack skin and half healed sores. But the child was more interested in the line of ants which marched uniformly across the marble floor, than she was in either the inert figure of her grandmother, or the rather more active shape of her mother, who now stood in the room. "This is my mother, Heather Elder," said Jill, who reached out to gently touch one shrunken hand. "And that," she added, pointing in the direction of the small child, "is Beth, who much prefers ants to people, except when she can talk to the crows."

Jo did not know whether she should respond to the introduction, given the almost mummified state of the old woman, but quickly reasoned that just because she was not capable of acknowledgement did not mean she was incapable of hearing. She stepped a little closer and said:"I'm very pleased to meet you," before turning toward the child on the floor."Hello Beth." The child, barely more than a toddler, turned her head for one brief instant, merely to satisfy her curiosity as to the source of the strange voice and then returned to her intent study of the ants.

"How is she today?" Jill asked, turning her head toward the nurse who had finished filling the plastic bottle and was now sitting in a chair by the window..

"There is no change Madam."

And there was no change, nor would there be, until she took that last night journey toward redemption, when the lid had at last been closed on the fragments of this world. She was stick-thin, this remnant of a person, lost beneath the folds of a loose, green cotton dress. Her fingers had curled into claws, all except one, the middle finger of her left hand which stuck straight out. She wore upon it a wide, gold band, which, from time to time, captured the light which streamed through the large window, so that it sat, like one, bright, shining tear.

It had taken thirteen years for the woman to be stripped of herself, slice by slice, as her mind began its wanderings. She had fallen into the nether world, unguided; drowning in its neural chaos, her self torn apart, scattered to the very edges of her inner universe, with all reason lost, abandoned in the deep swamps of forgetting. She had disintegrated into the night of the unconscious and those attending her knew not what had taken her, nor to what strange realms she had gone. She was past remembering. It was a life without mind and she was, as if embalmed, dead, and yet preserved within this living coffin of ice-white skin. Her life was folded in the dark sleeping: she lived, but she knew not.

There had been a time when she fought, valiantly, but against insurmountable odds. The battle which raged within her was ultimately lost. The divine angelic figures of light had fallen against the forces of the devilish figures of evil. The dark monsters fully triumphed against the shining heroes and whatever was left of the woman called Heather Elder, lived in cruel solitude. Sometimes the world outside broke through, but it was no more than the sound of wind on deep waters. Her bright blue eyes were closed and in this, the winter of her life, she longed only for the water of her sun.

There was a sudden clatter and a cry came from the child. She had forgotten her ants for a moment and was holding in her lap a bowl of corn kernels, eating the pieces one by one, until, distracted once again by the insects she moved and the bowl had fallen and spilled the golden grains across the floor. The child's tears fell onto her grandmother's cold white feet and her mother moved across to comfort her. "Don't cry darling. We will get you some more corn." She picked up the child and reached behind the chair, pulling out a small, stuffed toy... a dog, with long and ragged ears, which she pushed into the waiting arms of the still weeping infant. "Come on.Here's Griffin. Don't cry or you will upset Ka. Say goodbye to Ka now. You can come to see her later."

The little girl shook her head and buried her face in Jill's shoulder. They walked from the room and Jo followed. Why does she call her Ka?" Jo asked.

"I don't know," replied Jill. "It is probably as close as Beth can get to grandma at present. She has funny names for all of us and I suppose because she is the youngest no-one bothers to correct her.”

"Ah yes, the advantages of being the baby in the family are many," Jo agreed. "Although there are disadvantages too," she added. "Sometimes the youngest is never allowed to grow up."

"Not a problem when you are the only child," smiled Jill. "I get to be everything, oldest, youngest and middling. It all begins and ends with me. And now I even get to be mother while my mother gets to be child. It's funny the way things work out."

"She does look very ill," said Jo, as they reached the bottom of the stairs. "Will she get better?"

"No, she is dying. I know it is the best thing but still I don't want it to happen. I know that to all intents and purposes she has been dead for years, but I suppose while people continue to remain physically alive, we always hope against hope that they will be healed. She has told me that I am not allowed to burn her when she dies and that when she is buried it must only be with white flowers. I don't know why. She told me that many years ago. It doesn't seem much to ask, does it ... to be buried in a box full of white flowers?"

As the car drove back down the pinched confines of the crowded lane Jo felt a wave of grief start a slow roll across her chest. The image of the stricken woman sat with her and she felt overcome , both with sadness and frustration. To have but not to have; to be so close and yet so far. It was worse than death, this kind of living, if it could even be called that. She was lost and she was dying but at least there was an end to it. Others were not so lucky. For others the mind would die long before the body weakened. That was worse, a living death.

When they reached the final corner and began to climb the hill, Jo saw through the windscreen a grey gathering of cloud on the horizon. It sat, in a lumpen massing of monsoon grey. Perhaps the rains would come sooner than everyone expected.

Lawrence pulled into the drive to find the way blocked by the plump, black bulk of an Ambassador. At the side of the car, within a flurry of shocking pink silk, stood a buxom woman, with a very large mouth and wildly gesticulating arms. Jo had not met Mrs Patel but assumed that it must be she, given the proprietorial way in which her car was parked directly outside the front door and the enthusiastic way in which she was abusing both her driver and the chowkidar at the gate. Jo, who could make out nothing meaningful from the shattering volley of words, which issued unceasingly from the stout matron, soon eased herself from the car and began to walk quietly toward the door, keeping a healthy distance between herself and the furious flapping of pink silk. She had almost reached the safety of the doorway when there came a crescendo of voice, then silence and, finally, the sound of pattering feet and a puffing of breath.

"Excuse me, excuse me!" came the call. Jo turned to see the flurry of bountiful pink hurry up beside her; one hand clasped to the heaving of large breasts and the other clutching a white, plastic shoulder bag. "If you would wait just a moment," she puffed. "You must let me say hello. We have not met. I am Mrs Patel and you must be Mrs Thompson's sister. I have heard so much about you from Mrs Mehta who is my very good friend.”

Jo smiled and held out her hand. "It is nice to meet you Mrs Patel." Her hand was clasped by something warm, soft and limp, causing her to instinctively look down in order to identify the unexpected object which rested briefly in her palm. But all was in order, it was indeed Mrs Patel's hand, and she had in fact managed to curl the fingers just a little in order to come as close as possible to a greeting of clasped hands. With a little shake, Mrs Patel removed her floppy hand and raised it to her shoulder, with rather more energy and strength, in order to re-settle the strap of her bag.

Jo had never encountered such listless, almost lifeless handshakes and for one fleeting moment she wondered if Indians suffered from a genetic defect of congenital wrist malformation. It felt as if the touching were done under duress, simply because there was no conceivable way that one could avoid it. Whatever the reason, it certainly accounted for the dirtiness of the place ... obviously no-one could muster the strength, or the muscle action necessary for rubbing something clean, when, for all intents and purposes life stopped at the wrist.

Mrs Patel clasped her generous chest a little harder and panted out yet more words: "All this hurrying. It is not good for me. And I have been upset, it is not good. These silly men, they never do what they are told." She shook her head in the direction of the driver and chowkidar who were leaning against the gate, each with a cigarette in his hand, having a relaxing smoke now that the moment of fiery passion had passed.

"Are you alright, Mrs Patel?" enquired Jo solicitously, wondering for just a moment if the heaving wheaze which seemed to have settled on the good lady's chest was likely to lead to more serious problems.

“I will be fine. I will be fine. Perhaps if you could just help me to the door. I have been rushing so much. It is so hot and there is so much to do.”Jo took her by the elbow in a bid to aid the raising of her bulk up the two small steps. As she guided her towards the door where PATEL was clearly marked in rarely polished brass, Mrs Patel said: "You must come in for a moment, I will get you something cool to drink.”

“No, really Mrs Patel. You must rest and I am due home now. They will be expecting me.”

“But I will not hear 'no' from you. You have been so kind. You must let me get you a small drink. Just for a moment you must come." Mrs Patel turned the key in her lock and pushed both the door open and Jo through it as she did so. “Come, come. You must sit," she said, as she led Jo along a small hallway, lined on each side by the dark, forbidding shapes of huge wardrobes.

There were more such cupboards in the lounge room, some four or five were ranked around the walls; a crowding of cupboards which bore down on the small space remaining. It was like being watched over by giants, thought Jo, as she was ushered to a seat in the middle of a long, green vinyl-covered sofa. It was a dark room with the windows curtained in faded red velvet drapes. They must be some of the windows which overlooked Mrs Mehta's rose garden, Jo told herself, as Mrs Patel scurried from the room, with remarkable lightness considering her bulk.

"I shall get you some mango juice ... freshly made, very chilled," she called back to Jo as she disappeared through the door, halting only for a moment to flick the light switch as she passed. One large, round globe of yellow glass now shone in the centre of the ceiling, casting a brave but frail light upon the far reaches of the room. It threw a honeyed glow upon the stained and faded walls, crenellated upon the farthest heights with the dark shadows of crawling damp.

The floor was tiled in squares of orange and brown, which bore, even in the dim light, testimony to the dusty air of the city. Another sofa, in the same, slippery green vinyl stood face to face with its pair and in front of each, a strip of rug, patterned in cream and tan, the detail somewhat obscured by wear and grime. On the right side of each settee stood a small, wooden, collapsible table, dressed alike with a once-white cotton doyley, and crowned with a small -crystal vase bearing the eternal bloom of plastic blossoms. And on each side stood the tall, timber guardians of Mrs Patel's secrets; with one wall playing host to two of the heavy cabinets. They contributed an oppressive presence to the room and a heaviness which must by necessity weigh upon all sat within this sacred circle.

Each of the wardrobes had a central door and while three of these were mirrored, two were not. Each bore, on the right hand side, a decorative panel displaying a floral motif. One was a handpainting of faded white lilies; another was tiled with bright green leaves and orange buds; a third revealed a tree of beaten copper; the next a curling of ivy leaves in unpolished brass and the fifth, the prettiest of them all, wore a square of mirror, deeply engraved with what appeared to be tall, languorous poppies, each cupped head drooping just a little

They were made, each and every one, of dark wood, which had, over the years, been varnished again and again, until the wood was encased in a heavy shell of gritty shellac. They offered an assortment of coloured crystal handles between them: one red, one green, one pink,one yellow and one clear, and beneath each bulbous globe of glittering glass, a bare, black keyhole. Jo could not help but wonder what was inside them and if they were locked, the absence of keys denoting either a lack of need to lock or a great care to keep them securely fastened, with the keys to each well and truly hidden. She had a sense that the latter explanation was more likely and in that she was unknowingly correct.

Mrs Patel did keep her cupboards securely locked, and not because they contained anything of real value, but simply because when the doors were tightly closed and the keys put carefully away, she felt safe. She hardly knew what they contained, some old family pictures, unnecessary lengths of cloth, unwanted gifts from her husband's business acquaintances, unread books ... an assortment, in short, of things which were not needed. They mouldered in the full, moist arms of ancient dust, because Mrs Patel could not bring herself to part with anything which had once been a part of her life. That was why she kept the cupboards, even though they were a cramp and a crowd upon the limited dimensions of her home.

She had inherited them from her parents and, although she did not know it they were important to her because they provided a link with the past ... a link with a time when she felt safe and protected. That was also why she kept them locked ... it made her feel that much safer. So much so, that if and when, it were ever necessary to open any of them, she felt quite overcome by an awful sense of dread and hurried to find whatever discarded thing had again become necessary so that the door could be re-locked as quickly as possible.

It had not always been so. In her earlier years each cupboard had casually proffered its key in thoughtless abandon. If she had wanted to recall such a time, which of course she did not, she would have remembered that the wardrobes were first locked and the keys safely hidden after she lost that which was all of life to her, Aditya, her baby son. He had been but six months old; her first son, her last son, her only child. He died in the night, of what, no-one knew, and because she had come to motherhood late, there were no more babies. The wardrobes were locked on the day of the funeral and remained so. It was only then that Mrs Patel felt safe enough to embark upon what remained of her life.

A sudden bustling at the door brought forth the bountiful presence of a broadly smiling Mrs Patel: "It is coming, it is coming. I am so sorry you have had to wait,” she said, settling herself across from Jo on the equally green and equally slippery settee. The boy from the mat walked into the room carrying a small, rectangular coffee table of heavily carved rosewood. He placed it between the two women and without looking up scuttled from the room as fast as his two spindly legs would carry him. He was followed almost immediately by the tall, angular shape of one of Mrs Patel's senior manservants, who ceremoniously placed a circular tray of black plastic bearing two glasses of rich, yellow liquid upon the table.

"Take, take, this is for you," said Mrs Patel, pointing to the tall glass nearest to Jo. Jo dutifully took and raised the glass to her lips. The cloying perfume of mango rose through her nostrils, but the drink itself proved rather less intense and delightfully refreshing. Mrs Patel sat back and smiled with satisfaction. She did not drink, she was happy to watch.

"Do you like it?" she enquired eagerly.

"It is very nice," replied Jo, thankful that for once she could tell the truth. Mrs Patel nodded her head and gave a sigh which could well have been one of relief. She was a seasoned worrier, Mrs Patel. She worried about herself and she worried about her family and she worried about her friends and she worried about Mr Patel. There were so many things to worry about and it was so important to do the right thing. She was pleased, very pleased, that in this instance, all was correct.

"So, and how are you enjoying your visit?" she asked.

"Oh, it's very interesting," said Jo, trying to convince herself that she was not being dishonest. "It is so different from my country ... I have never seen anything like it."

Mrs Patel's black, oiled hair bobbed up and down. She was satisfied. The question had been asked, the answer given, it was time to talk of other things.

"Do you have children ... Mrs .Baker?"

“You can call me Jo, and yes, I have two, both very grown up."

"They are not with you on this visit, Mrs Baker?”

"No, they are at university in Australia and would probably consider themselves far too old to be travelling around with their mother."

"Children are never too old to be with their parents," said Mrs Patel, shaking her head in disapproval. "It is right that they should be with their parents."

"Well, I suppose it is different here," said Jo, draining the last of her juice in readiness to leave. "Do you have children?"

The deep sigh which escaped from Mrs Patel led Jo to suspect that once again she had wandered onto dangerous ground. Mrs Patel stood up and shuffled slowly across to a small table which was almost hidden in one murky corner of the room. She returned, clutching to her bosom,the square, sharp shape of what could only be a photograph. Without speaking, she handed it to Jo. It was a very old, blurred photograph of a baby.

"I'm sorry," said Jo instinctively. Mrs Patel retrieved the photograph and sat down again with a dull moan. It was twenty years since she had lost her son and yet the pain remained as real as if it were yesterday. In her own mind it was yesterday, for something had stopped in Mrs Patel on that dreadful day. The vestiges of herself, no longer needed, had been cast into the corners; the door closed and the key turned. She held the photograph to the rise and fall of her maternal bosom and turned moist eyes to Jo. "He was so beautiful, my baby. I do not know why he could not live. This is all I have left."

For one moment Jo thought that she would begin to cry, but then, she spoke again, a sound of old, dry emptiness: "I did all of the things that I should when I was pregnant. All of the things. For the morning sickness I drank tulsi leaf tea, and my mother-in-law roasted cloves and cardamoms for me to chew. Fresh ginger juice I had also. But I did not mind the sickness because I knew that it was bringing me a son.

"And every day, never failing, I drank the milk with a teaspoon of tumeric powder, so that his skin would be fair. And again, at night, Mr Patel would bring me more hot milk, but this time with a spoonful of ground almonds for that also makes the skin of the baby white. Coconut water is also good and that I would drink right through the day. I knew that I would have the most beautiful of sons and I knew that his skin would be like milk." She began to rock from side to side, her eyes closed, the better to catch and hold the memories. "He was so beautiful, so beautiful. Skin like ivory and so fat. Every day I had the rice and the milk and the ghee ... and none of the chilli ... I wanted him to be perfect."

She had also done the kitchen tasks, she told Jo, to make her strong for the birth. Every day from the third month to the end of the sixth month, for fifteen minutes, she sat on the floor and ground at the stone hand-mill to tone up her back, spine and pelvic muscles. She also churned the butter the traditional way, with yogurt and water put into a large earthenware pot and mixed, round and round, with a long wooden ravi or ghotni. It was the motion of pulling the two ends of the cord twined around the ghotni which not only strengthened the spine but also the pectoral muscles which support the breasts.

She so wanted everything to be perfect and had not minded that the labour, when it came, had been long and painful, very painful. But what was pain when it brought a son? she asked, more of herself than of Jo. The milk had come. So much milk,she changed her clothes five times a day. He had grown fat, so fat ... and then, he had died, and she was left with nothing but her fat breasts, tortured and dripping. There were no more babies, no more babies, she finished in a drift of dead words. Jo sat silent for a time, waiting for her to continue speaking, but it had all been said and she began to realise that it was for her to fill the wordless void.

"I'm sorry," she said at last, pushing the words out into the stale, thick emptiness. She felt caught within an acute sense of helplessness and wondered what it was that drew her to these women who had lost sons. First Mary and now Mrs Patel. Mary's son had lived some six years, Mrs Patel's, just some few months, but the loss was the same. Children were not expected to die: it wasn't meant to be that way.

She looked across at Mrs Patel who sat, rocking gently back and forth as she nursed the faded memory of her child. It was time to leave, and yet, in the doing, she felt that she would be disturbing something precious. Yet, disturb her she must or she would be trapped here with her."I must go," said Jo gently, reaching out to touch the shimmer of pink silk which ballooned from Mrs Patel's lap." It has been very kind of you. I am so glad we could meet," she added. Mrs Patel nodded and ponderously lifted herself to her feet as Jo stood up. She came to the door with her, and stood at the step, smiling farewell, clutching the photograph to her breast; cradling it still, like a living child.

As Jo climbed the stairs, with a slow but steady tread, she felt the weight of Mrs Patel's grief slide gradually from her shoulders. Such a terrible thing, she thought, to lose a child, and yet, perhaps it was worse to want a child and to be denied one.

She remembered Maria, she of the dead womb, who had cradled the wooden doll in her arms, in a daily ritual of yearning to give birth.Her husband Joe, would come each Sunday, without fail, bearing in his dry and workworn hands, a bunch of yellow daisies; those flowers of flimsy beauty which offered such a pedestrian perfume.

Joe and Maria were Italian and Maria was barren. It was a cruel blow for any woman, but even worse for a woman born in Italy and brought up within the confines of a rigid Catholic faith. She had failed not only as an Italian woman, but also as a Catholic. It was not a failure which she had apparently been able to bear and so, as the years nudged her closer to the time beyond woman as mother, so too they nudged her deeper within herself, to that place where time no longer exists. At some point in her early fifties, with her retreat complete, her husband found it was no longer possible to both work and care for what remained of the woman he called wife. Maria was committed, the event causing far greater grief to her distraught and guilty husband than it did to her protected self.

By the time that Jo came to cross her narrow path she had been in the hospital for some ten years and her husband had managed to make a fragile peace with himself. He had also found some comfort in the company and arms of a warm and gentle woman who had long been a friend of the family. Each understood though, that Maria was his wife and would always remain so. Each was content with the grace which had been allowed and Joe never failed to visit the woman, who remained his wife in the sight of God and the world, and in the sight of the honourable young man who had taken her to his heart and his bed all those many years ago.

Whether Maria knew or cared what had transpired in the outside world, it was hard to say, for she did not speak, not even to Joe. She simply sat, through the long daylight hours, huddled in the scrubbed sterility of the shining corridor, rocking her doll. It was a soft-bodied doll with a carved wooden face. Maria had liked flowers and Joe was always careful, when he bought new clothes for her, to find dresses made in floral fabrics. Her favourite dress had been in green and white, a pattern of small-petalled flowers, buttoned at the front with tiny plastic fish, the sort of novelty button popular for children's clothes in the fifties. The dress was belted at the waist and full-skirted and on her head she liked to wear a hat, small and round, in green straw, with red flowers tucked into the band on one side. When Joe came to visit he would sit by her side throughout the afternoon, chatting with anyone who happened to walk along the corridor. He would rest his arm around Maria's shoulders and smile at her, as he rocked and crooned and sometimes whistled, calling to the winds to carry the seed to her that she might be fruitful and bear a child.

What a waste of a life, reflected Jo. Maria had been crucified upon her own cross of grief simply because she wanted to be 'other' than she was. It was easy to be critical, she admonished herself, when she had no idea at all of what it must be like to be infertile. Fertility had been the least of her problems. She hadn't even been sure she wanted to be a mother ... it all just happened, she told herself as she reached the top of the stairs, paused for just a moment to catch her breath. and then rang the doorbell. The door opened to reveal a smiling Mary and the air perfumed with the redolent richness of curry. "Hello Mary. That smells good. Are you cooking for us tonight?"

Mary gave an embarrassed smile and hung her head: "Yes, Madam. Sir said that I should cook some Indian food for you."

"Well that's very thoughtful of Sir and very kind of you," replied Jo warmly. "Where will I find Sir and Madam?"

"They are on the verandah, Madam. It is the time when they have a drink."

"Thank you Mary, I shall look forward to dinner," said Jo, as she dropped her handbag onto a chair and walked down the short hallway which led to the verandah.

"Hello there," Richard called with a hearty semi-bellow as Jo pushed open the doors. "We thought we had lost you."

"No, no," Jo replied, sinking into a chair."I am sorry I am late but I was waylaid by Mrs Patel."

"Ah, so you have met the lovely Radha, she to whom even the gods bowed down."

"Sorry?" said Jo. "You've lost me."

"He means Mrs Patel," said Anne. "Radha is her first name and it is also the name of the woman who was loved by the god Krishna."

"Ah," Jo nodded, with increased but limited understanding. "As you would imagine ,my knowledge of Indian mythology is somewhat thin."

"So is his," added Anne. "He is just trying to be clever."

"But of course I am clever," teased Richard," I am a man after all, and just to show you how clever I am, I shall get you a drink Jo. What would you like?"

"Gin and Tonic would be fine," laughed Jo, as her sister gave a small snort of disgust. "The trouble is he really believes that," said Anne,”things said in jest ..."

“Yes," agreed Jo. "We really do mean everything we say, even if we don't believe that we do. Anyway, why should Richard be different, all men do believe that they are clever because they are men. Perhaps they are. Sometimes I think they are better at surviving life than women. There were a lot more women in the hospital than there were men. Or maybe it is because this world is made by men, for men and what is called insanity in women is only whatever is different to the way that men think."

"Hmmm," said Anne, sounding unconvinced. She ran her fingers slowly around the rim of her glass and then said: "I meant to ask you ... what was it like, in the hospital ... it must be terrible to be put somewhere like that."

"Yes, it is terrible to be put, but I wasn't put there, I went. There's a difference. I knew I needed help and I went to the only place where I thought I might find it. I guess if you are sane enough to know that you need help then you are not so crazy as you might think you are. Anyway, there are worse places to be than a mental hospital."

Anne raised her eyebrows in a quizzical arch, seemingly unable to embrace the concept that anywhere could be worse than a mental hospital.

"Let's just say," continued Jo, "nothing need be wasted. Every experience is what you make of it ... even a psychiatric hospital ... even India."

Anne began to re-settle herself in her seat, in something remarkably close to a squirm . Jo sat back, nursing quietly to herself, some small sense of satisfaction that the arrow had found its mark. They both sat in silence, listening to the sound of Richard, who strode manfully, if noisily, along the length of the wooden-floored verandah, with the small silver tray held high in the air. "Madam's G and T," he said, bowing ceremoniously. "Long on the G and short on the T," he added with a wicked grin.

"Thanks, I need it. Cheers," said Jo, raising her glass to both of them. The gin soon found its mark and she had just begun to settle down into its calming embrace when the shake and rustle of a strengthening wind began to move through the branches of the banyan tree. Within a short time, it had grasped its true purpose and began to whip its way along the verandah.

"I think we had better go in," said Anne, jumping quickly to her feet. "I will get Mary to move the furniture from here just in case we have a storm on the way.” The others rose reluctantly to their feet and prepared to move inside, when Anne stopped for a moment, her hand on the balustrade, her face turned toward the fury of the wind: "I hate it when the wind blows like this," she said quietly. "I am frightened it will never stop."

"Come on, old girl," said Richard, taking her arm. "Nothing lasts forever, not even the wind. Hey, look on the bright side, you'll even be rid of me one day ... women live longer than men, you know."

He gave a chuckle at his own good humour and ushered the two women through the double doors, into the safety of the inner house. And within the hour the wind had taken hold of the arms of night and pinioned them close; holding the darkness to ransom with merciless fury. In the hidden heart of the storm, the clouds began their endless roll across the Arabian Sea, until, open-mouthed, they spewed monsoon in a drench across the sun-withered face of the land. It was done. The annual baptism had begun. The water had been sprinkled on the stone: the rains fell.


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