••• The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories
After Black & White Lightning
Michael Chacko Daniels
'No rice, no dahl, no sugar...'
Nothing to eat? How was it possible?
“No rice, no dahl, no sugar,” Mummy whispered at the foot of my bed in my ‘Cabin,’ in the verandah of our small second floor flat, where I had been sleeping, trying to recover from several fitful nights after the Night Whisperer struck, terrifying our family and our neighbors in Braganza’s House.
She stepped back, turned, and looked out the verandah.
No rice, no dahl, no sugar? I had a gut-putty feeling about this. Eljay Road, Mahim, Bombay 16, blistered in my brain, millions of tar pocks opening up on this Wednesday in 1958, a Novena day at St. M.’s for Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
“Don’t go to school today, if you are tired,” she’d said earlier that morning. “The priests and teachers will understand after the sleepless nights we have had. In these lawless times, ordinary people have to find ways of protecting themselves.”
Now, her brown eyes looked at me, then, back to Eljay Road. She was wearing a threadbare white sari with a brown border. Was this her new outfit to show the night-whispering burglars we had nothing of value to spark their envy?
Was she about to shed tears? Only once before I’d seen that, when older brother Jacob had left for Hollywood, and she’d said, as if explaining her tears, “I will be dead before my son returns. He is going so far away. He will forget—” She’d shaken her head and wiped her tears and said no more.
Looking at her now, I missed the powerful, all-knowing woman who’d faced up to Daddy on his order for three dozen mangoes for the P. M. of Canada and who’d stopped the whispering thief in the night; the mother who’d strategically donned a silk sari and marched to St. M.’s to protect me from punitive caning masked as corrective caning.
Nothing to eat? How was it possible?
I heard, as often I did, wings flapping as her anxious eyelids trembled, and I imagined their message to me: Listen to me, my son, and my cares will go away on swift wings.
I moaned silently. I hated this unburdening of her loss and pain on me—the absorbent boy, although almost a man—because she could and I was unable to stop her.
And despite knowing the weight and consequence of her words on my brain and heart, I let her open up, and obediently listened and absorbed her cares.
Blood rushed into my head. I yearned to get out of there, fly down the street, my feet hardly touching the cobbles.
My tummy tensed. One day the Man of the House was speeding three dozen mangoes all the way to Canada, now we had a barren kitchen? No peanuts for Parrot. Had Daddy bet his last rupee on a long shot on my future Canadian success securing his future? I felt hungrier by the second now that I knew the cooking pots were empty.
In a country dedicated to five-year plans, why didn’t my parents have a plan for a day, a week, a month?
“Why for?” I managed, finally. Trying to prevent my mouth from filling up with angry words, my mind zig-zagged into Blitz-Current tabloid argot: “Are you talking food shortages? In India’s commercial capital? That means people across the land are starving. Profiteers? At it again? At war with Nehru’s middle way? Or has the Government of India re-introduced rationing?”
Perhaps it was my face: open, brown, mother-earth-brown, eyes. Perhaps it was my inability to reject her words—once her eyes had poured her pain into mine, how could I halt the flow of her words?
Go to my cowlick, I thought. That would do it.
Extravagantly, it curled and flopped. My vanity of vanities. When Mummy grieved, schoolmates moaned, I had only to caress my cowlick to get them to wind down, or just—shut up. But, brimful with sensitivity and understanding, I’d postpone the moment almost endlessly, feeling: I’m no longer a pubescent boy, I’m all grown-up, a man suffering for humanity or a mother breast-feeding her child. They’d swim in my eyes and be drawn into me, I into them, until my cowlick’s reality recalled me to myself.
“No money in Daddy’s pocket.” Mummy’s right hand rotated between us, rapidly. “I looked this morning.”
My hand turned upward, slowly. “The bank?”
“Daddy said, ‘Zero balance.’” Behind her golden-rimmed specs, her eyes darted, right, left, right, left. “He has been underperforming at work after the Night Whisperer attacked.”
I felt dizzy. I looked down. She was wearing her oldest brown slippers.
This was much too much to take in one swallow. I could feel her bleeding into my eyes.
Mummy and my brother Hollywood Jacob were selfish and blind, I decided, wandering from the drama of the parched bullock down below on Eljay Road. A dry wind whirled inside me. They took what they wanted from me and then turned on me. I felt my orifices narrow.
“Buy on credit from the food baniya (trader) across the road,” I said to Mummy. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to give us—you are always buying from him.”
“Our account is full. Baniyaman said he too must pay his suppliers, eat, pay his rent, feed the priests, and the holy cows, etcetera, etcetera.”
“If not that shop, why not the baniya on station road or around the corner on the way to the bazaar. Given them enough business over the years, haven’t we? They want to pull you away from the baniya shop across the street, don’t they?”
“All have same answer. Account full, etcetera, etcetera, so on and so forth.”
You know the feeling — you are about to loose control and you don’t know which end is going to let go first, and you want above all else to show that your muscles are in full charge of every orifice. But if there’s no rice, dahl, and sugar, then, there could be no mutton or fish, no vegetables, all of which we paid for by the day at the Mahim Bazaar.
And not a paisa for Parrot’s peanuts. My eyes turned into slits. I tightened all over.
“What will we do until Daddy can get an advance on his sales commission?” Mummy inquired, following me inside the flat.
“Maybe we can live on eggs and bread,” I said. We paid for them by the month. “None today. Maybe when the eggman and breadman come tomorrow. But how long can we live on them?”
I was about to ask her why she was asking me that question, when I realized she was addressing the question to the Jesus picture under which she was standing.
Should I, I wondered, remind her that this was a contravention of the Protestant rule of not praying to pictures of the Lord?
I looked away not wanting to show that I had caught her going against her careful enunciation of how Protestants were different from Catholics, which she had said she did only to prevent me from sliding down into some hell reserved for Protestants who adopted Catholic practices.
I noticed the neat stacks of newspapers near the front door, the Times of India in a bundle all by itself.
I wanted to scream. My knees felt weak. This was way too much. She’d been so quick to tell me to stay at home from school when I’d said I was a bit under the weather.
“Those old newspapers,” Mummy said, “only take up space. Better to dispose them. You are good at this, Paul.”
I looked at her. My eyes returned to slits to see through all her devices.
In a thought bubble above her head, I read: Dhars, Sequeiras, Alvaredos, Carvalhoses.
She was embarrassed. Of what they’d think: Mrs. Paulose hawking newspapers! No money for the next meal. Why? That Mr. Paulose, he makes enough money. Much more than us.
My heart turned to mush.
Her eyes darted around the office-cum-drawing room. Her right hand fluttered—a question shot heavenwards, silently. She covered her head with the end of her sari, looked at the newspapers, then at me. “I promise you, Paul, I will give you equal value that we get from the newspapers—later. When Daddy gets paid. I know the old newspapers are your only source of pocket money.”
Fair deal, I thought. But the idea of staying at home to sell newspapers to the trader across the street felt like going around without brushing my teeth or bathing. Not what I’d learned to do as a good boy in a good Malayalee Christian family, and Protestant to boot.
She closed her eyes.
“Please, Jesus, forgive Daddy and me for breaking our solemn pledges and going back to the races at Mahalaxmi Race Course. Daddy said he had a sure-fire tip. Straight from the horse’s mouth, he said. Last time he had such a tip, we made thousands. How was I to know it was all tipster’s made-up story to make money off my trusting husband?
“Maha-Lakshmi, the Great Goddess of Wealth. For the Hindus. Not for us. We are born-again Christians. But, what can we do? In India, gambling is an ancient affliction. Affects all walks of life, good families also. Epics full of stories of gambling away kingdoms and families. Today, no food to put on the table. How will I feed my children? Save us, O Lord. I promise you we will never again step into that place of sin. Help my son Paul get good price from that clever baniyaman—”
“Was it Black Lightning this time?” I inquired before she was done. “You all said you were going to church. You went instead to Mahalaxmi Race Course? Maybe I should go and eat at Peter’s.”
“Peter’s? What do you think?” Her right palm rose and fell, distracting me from my questions. “You think they have extra food?” Her chin rose and fell. “Like everyone they struggle. Their father is still starving in England. He has no money to send his wife and boys.”
My eyebrows rose. I couldn’t help it; I was in a state of complete disbelief. These are the words of a gambling woman, only, I thought. Anyway, if Peter’s father was starving, it wasn’t due to gambling on horses.
“You have done this before, Paul.” Her voice sounded as sweet as chapati filled with jaggery, the evaporated sap of palm trees, one of my favorite sweet dishes.
“Take paper and sell,” she said, pointing to the bundles of newspapers.
Too easy, I thought. This had to stop, this chasing after a pot of gold, betting on the Black and White Lightnings racing at Mahalaxmi Race Course.
Hardening my heart, I skirted around her and escaped back to the balcony.
I hid, baking in my Cabin, afraid someone would see me from the next building and telepathically read what was uppermost in my mind: that we didn’t have any food, and why. I felt the parapet closing in on me. I dug out Captain America from the pile of comics in my little bookshelf. But I found no solace in the stars and stripes. What I needed was a Captain India comic book. What I had facing me was a job for a saffron hero.
Mummy’s graying head popped into the space between the verandah’s parapet and the curtain at the foot of the bed. “Please, Paul,” she said. “Only a few minutes of your time. You are good at this.”
I closed my eyes to shut out her pleading eyes.
She must have thought I was praying, because she said, “Good, Paul. Pray for God’s help.” Her voice choked.
Was she in pain because God had not answered her prayers as yet and she needed additional prayers from me?
My eyes tightened. Not Captain America. Not Captain India. Not even Captain Marvel. Shazaam wouldn’t quite do it on this mission. What I had to conjure up was invisibility.
I saw myself slipping past all our neighbors’ ever-watchful eyes, my imagined cloak of invisibility covering me, as I executed a mission for my mother.
Repeating mentally, It’s only a game to earn some pocket money, I swung two huge bundles of paper as if they were my very own treasure chests. Hips ungirded, I crossed Eljay Road to the right of the yellow-flower tree.
The crossing completed, triumphantly, I dropped my load in front of the seated paper-trader and, squashing my natural reserve, I produced a broad smile and said in my halting street Hindi, “Today, how are you?”
He ignored me.
I could understand that response — I’d never asked him that question before.
His eyes remained fixed on the Gujarati newspaper he was reading.
I held fast to my smile. “What price kilo?” I said. “Times of India bundle — must certainly give more.”
Without shifting his gaze from his newspaper, he quoted a price for each bundle.
I did a slowpoke translation. His price was low. I scowled.
“Take it, or leave it,” he said, fingers whirling the whole question away from him, as if the newspapers and I were fly-ridden rubbish. His eyes returned to reading his newspaper. I wondered whether he subscribed to it or was leafing through the used merchandise he had bought by the kilo. With a flourish, he unflapped a page and folded the newspaper.
I didn’t budge from the mission my mother had sent me on, her voice choking my heart. A smile pushed aside the demon scowl I’d seen on a Kathakali dancer’s mask that I felt like flashing at the trader.
Eyes still fixed on his newspaper, the trader said in Hindi, which I struggled to translate word by word, “Today, why come after selling your old goods, always, always, to that bicycle-riding scoundrel? My livelihood he takes.”
Ohhwee! This was a hot one that I’d stepped into. My heart dropped a thousand miles. I had to get money, otherwise no rice, dahl, and sugar. A tall order. What to do? This trader had been building up his godown of grievance with each bundle of newspapers I had sold over the weeks, months, years to the itinerant paperwallah. But how did he discover what had occurred out of his line of vision? Either his snooping network included Braganza’s House, or he was just guessing and bluffing.
Bluffing? Bluffing? Who did he think he was bluffing?
The very next instant, my face flushed. My tongue prepared to shoot rough words at him in a veritable Man-of-the-House-type explosion. I am my father’s son. I have seen, I have heard. I can do it. No problem.
“Don’t take that road,” I imagined Father F., the Elder, counseling. Mrs. Sequeira: “Bargain.” Master D’Silva: “Raise your right eyebrow.” Miss D’Lima: “Say something nice to him.” The ex-wrestler priest: “Take a deep breath, spread your shoulders, plant your feet firmly, stare at him fiercely until he relents.”
My feet bore down. I could feel roots growing out of them into the cobbled footpath. I sucked in the exhaust-filled air eagerly, straightened my spine, looked at him, raised an eyebrow, and telegraphed mentally: “If I may have your attention for a moment.”
I made my offer, mimicked the effortless take-it-or-leave-it whirl of his fingers, and walked away.
What if he decided not to take it? The world was in the pit of my stomach. All of it for a moment. Along with my growing hunger it was burning a hole so deep, I felt I’d never be whole again.
Just then, in the distance a familiar cry broke through all the rattling and roaring on Eljay Road. The itinerant second-hand, bicycle-riding paperwallah was back to our neighborhood on his weekly rounds. His prices were always better than the squatting-and-reading store paperwallah.
Yes, Mummy, there’s a God, I thought.
As I stepped away, the trader called out from his shop, “Aarree! Back come. To respond, give me a chance.”
“‘Take it, or leave it,’ you said. Aachaa, this time I leave it. Maybe, you offer next time—better. And more respectful you will be.”
I kept walking, crossed the street, and returned home with the bundles.
“What happened?” Mummy asked. Her eyes wavered.
“Did he not want it?”
“Yes, he wanted it, after pretending he didn’t.”
I read her fear in her untethered eyes.
“Not to worry; our regular paperwallah is coming up in a few minutes. After making his rounds. He always has a better price. Far, far better attitude. Anyway, he’s putting his sons through English-medium school by buying-and-selling papers from people like us.” I looked at the Great Leader’s photo under the ceiling fan’s controls, which were on the way to our front door, and said, “Mr. Nehru, let it not be said the Paulose family doesn’t give first consideration to the betterment of India.”
Today, I thought, the itinerant paperwallah, a migrant from Pordbundur, Gujarat, who lives in Bandra in the diocese just past St. M.s Church, was my Captain India. I was sure he made his son’s school fees every month, not to say anything of putting sufficient food in the family pot without fail. And today, thanks to his arrival, I’d be able to negotiate enough for rice, dahl, sugar, and maybe more for the Paulose family.
© Michael Chako Daniels October 2018
mchackod at pacbell.ne
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