Madras on Rainy Days

A Novel

Samina Ali


Prologue: One Year Ago


Suffering quietly in a room not my own. The door locked. The wooden shutters pulled closed and bolted. No breeze out there, nothing to rustle the leaves of the mango or coconut trees. Only stillness. Early morning on a hot May day, the middle of the summer season in Hyberabad. It must be 104 outside. In here, it feels much hotter.
One of the wooden shutters is splintered and warped along the edge, allowing a single beam of sunlight to enter the room. I am lying at the center of my aunt's bed, the one she brought with her in dowry some twenty years earlier. For her wedding night, it had been draped with a pink mosquito net, ropes of jasmine and rose hanging from the four sides, filling the air with their scent. She saw my uncle's face for the first time that evening when he made love to here---not on the soft red velvet that covered the mattress for this celebration, but carefully positioned on top of a two-by-two-foot white sheet that would give more validity to this union than her wedding necklace or their vows. The next morning, he hung the red-spotted cloth on the clothesline and it fluttered in the wind for all to see, a white flag of her surrender and his victory. Then she, having proven herself worthy of him, began the long process of forgetting her own family to become integrated with my own. Now, the bed stands naked and bare, exposing itself to be nothing more than it actually is: a wooden platform layered with a two-inch cotton mattress that doesn't even provide comfort. I feel the wood press against the hard edges of my body, the back of the head, my shoulder blades, my elbows, my heels. If a man were to lie on top of me now, I imagine I would break.
The narrow strip of sunlight falls across my lips, and as I feel them growing warmer, I think this is what red lipstick should feel like. Wedding red. Soon, though, I am uncomfortable, my neck and back sweaty, moistening the cotton sheet beneath me so I know that I am leaving an imprint.
But I don't move. In fact, I don't move for the rest of the day. As the sun crosses the closed-off sky, the band of light descends my body. It leaves my lips to slip across my throat, then slices my breasts, my stomach, my pelvis and thighs, and, finally, too weak, it retreats, crawling to the turquoise wall. With not other means, this is how I have clocked the passage of time. In the end, the dust particles in the air are no longer visible. Nor are the outlines of my own skin. Everything becomes blurry and enmeshed so that the curve of my arm might really be the folds of my shirt, and where I once clearly saw my big toe sticking straight up might now actually be the doorknob from across the room.
Everything is in shadows. Except this: my mother's voice on the other side of the locked door.
She is whimpering as she thrusts her forehead against the bedroom door, then pulls away, only to thrust it forward again. Each times he smashes here head, I hear the dull thud of wood and the door vibrates, and I fear it might give way under pressure. But I keep my eyes closed, trying to ignore these motions of suffering. Still, I cannot stop this grinding of my teeth, nor the way my fingernails are tearing stretches of skin on my thighs until I can feel the sticky warmth of my own blood right through the thin, polyester shalwar. Somehow, there is relief in our joint anguish.
"Your mother's heart is breaking. You are breaking your mother's heart. Devil's child, you will never be happy, you'll see." It is Amme's voice, though it no longer holds any semblance to the one I know. There seems to be another woman speaking out from her, cursing me, when we both know no curse clings better than that of mother to daughter, flesh and loam. Who is the devil's child, then, she or I?
On the other side of the shutters, leaves crunch and a twig breaks. My uncle is packing, too apprehensive yet to intervene---not because he approves of my silent protest, but because he know that it is for his sister and his wife, the women of this house, to convince me to assent to this suitor, the one they have all chosen for me to marry, then love. Yet I feel the burden of his presence and this, more than all the silly wailing, is enough to make me buckle.
My nanny and her daughter yank my mother away from the door. Their sandals shuffle and skid on the titled floor. Amme begs that they leave her be. She says she knows what she is doing. This is ancient and stubborn poise.
"You are bleeding," my nanny says. "Hai Allah, what type of daughter is this? What have you borne, you unlucky mother?" The two take Amme away, their voices fading as they leave the hallway and enter the living room.
"I don't know what else to do," Amme sobs. "He father is not here. He's never here. Is there no one who can help me? How can I do this alone?"
The room has shifted from shadows into darkness. My breathing grows shallow and I can smell my own sweat. Outside, more leaves crunch underfoot. This time, farther away. My uncle is retreating and I wonder where his wife is.
There are no sounds now, only the silence I know so well, and in the blackened room, I see floating images of Amme's bloody forehead and my bloodstained thighs merging and separating, becoming grotesque, and just when I tell myself I will not give in, not this time, Amme suddenly breaks free of my nanny. A chair scrapes along the floor as my nanny's old body falls against it. She screeches and Amme screeches and both tones pulsate and become one and the same before my nanny's stops short and Amme's continues. She is running back down the hall toward the bedroom, toward me, her ill-fated daughter, her voice growing louder and deeper as she comes closer.
"Whore!" she growls, pounding on the door. Fists and forehead. Fists and forehead. Bare feet. "Tell me who is your lover. Shameless whore! Just like your father. Who are you sleeping with that you can't marry another?" Of course there is no one, and I am exactly how she has raised me to be, innocent. But she condemns me and my femaleness, hoping to take control in the only way anyone can: through my body.
"I'll throw you out and you can prostitute yourself to stay alive." She has taken on my father's threats, something she has never done before. Then I hear my aunt's voice over my left shoulder, on the other side of the shutters, as she urges here husband to intervene, and my uncle sighs and steps forward, dry leaves shattering under his chappals as his knuckles knock hesitantly on the wood, "Come out, Beta," he says, meaning daughter, a loving title he uses only when provoked. "Your mother is right. You cannot build your happiness upon her ruins. All of this anger and filth is not good, not good for you, not good for anyone."
He walks away, toward a front gate, and it creaks as he opens and shuts it behind him, and my aunt walks in the other direction, back toward the entrance to the house, and I know she is headed for my mother, to lend her arm, to wrap it around Amme's trembling shoulders, to quiet the anger and filth because my nanny and her daughter are still crying in the living room, and the walls in this room are muttering, too softly for me to hear, yet I open my eyes and see the stillness of the overhead fan, its rounded blades disappearing into the darkened ceiling, but before I can think of the consequences of giving in, my mother smashes her head against the door, a final time, a bit too hard, and this last strike causes her to fall to the floor, a folding of her body then a thump, and the earth sighs, and I rise, finally, just another weed in this wretched soil.

Chapter 1: Shai'tan

Amme and I sat in the backseat of the Fiat, covered entirely with black chadors. Only our eyes showed, both brown, pear-shaped, and frightened. In her irises I saw my own face reflected back at me, featureless, a dark, oval mass, the ghost or the devil she already believed me to be. We were driving into the inner parts of the Old City to visit the alim. Amme was convinced the devil was inside me and she wanted the mystic to exorcise it. But I knew that when she looked into my eyes, she saw the same thing, her own face dark and formless.
My uncle sat in the front seat of the car in order to direct our driver, Ahmed. Amme didn't want anyone to know our destination, not even the driver. She worried word might reach Sameer, my fiancé, and he would break the engagement if he heard I was possessed. So Abu Uncle guided the young driver through the maze of these narrow back alleys that looked identical with their one- to two-room shacks as he searched for the alim's house. The deeper we moved into the neighborhood, the fewer trees I saw. There were only cement walls here, one after the other, and alleys that led to more alleys, shooting off each other like veins, and I doubted we would find the alim. A few times we reached dead ends in the dirt road and had to backtrack.
"He'll take care of you," Amme whispered to me through the glistening polyester of her veil. But she was careful to sit close to the door, careful not to touch me. "Don't be worried. The dreams will stop. And the bleeding. You'll be better. It's not you, Layla, it's not." Her eyes searched me up and down as though she were looking for any signs of the devil. The more she behaved this way, the more I believed there really was something inside me. I stared at her without blinking, feeling silently powerful and mysterious, beyond any of them.
She glanced toward the front seat, at the slim and broad shoulders of Ahmed and Abu Uncle, then turned again to me. "The alim's good," she continued to whisper. "Not like the others. Your uncle says this one is authentic---he doesn't take money." Her eyes grew bigger and smaller as she spoke. "Don't look at me like that," she said. "Your eyes scare me." She gazed out the window. Beneath her black veil, on her thigh, I saw the movement of her fist as she rolled her knuckles.
Outside, the Old City streets were becoming narrower and narrower, and the cement houses smaller. In these parts, not even motor-rickshaws passed, so at the sound of our slow-moving car, bare-legged kids jumped out of doorways and chased after it, some waving sticks. We grew silent in their shrill laughter. A light rain was coming down, though here and there the clouds broke and sun shone down as well. It was early July in India and the monsoons were just under way.
Despite the rain, my uncle had his window open and his thick arm placed outside, the black hair becoming wet and pressed into his chocolate skin. His other arm was thrown across the length of the seat back, his fingers lingering near Ahmed's thin shoulders. I watched the tips drum the vinyl car seat and waited to see if he would actually touch Ahmed. Men did that here, openly caressed one another, and no one was sure what those touches really meant, not even the men themselves...or their brides-to-be. On the streets, men held hands and wrapped arms around waists while they walked. Having been raised in both India and America, for me these differences in cultures, slightly as they sometimes might be, had caused much confusion. Each time I arrived in India or the U.S., after spending a half year away, it was like turning a page and not knowing whether to begin reading the script from right to left or left to right, Urdu or English. Yet the direction I chose always made a difference.
"Here, here," Abu Uncle said, squeezing Ahmed's shoulder then pointing left toward an alleyway that looked like all the others. "Turn here."
"By now Ahmed had turned on the wipers and they squeaked and scratched the windshield. He stopped the car and stuck his head out the window.
"I can't go in there, sa'ab," he said to Abu Uncle. "The car will get stuck."
"No, no, I think this will work. Go on, go on."
"I don't think so, sa'ab. Look how narrow the alley is. Even if the car goes in, how will any of you be able to get out?" He laughed. From behind, the hair of both was long and wavy, covering the sweaty napes of their necks.
Amme and I leaned forward. It was early morning on a Friday, the holy day for Muslims, so the streets were unusually empty, which made them visible in their entirety. I studied the narrow passageway that lay between two rows of tiny houses, but couldn't be certain if we would fit or not. The Fiat was smaller than the BMW I drove in Minneapolis, so I couldn't trust my judgment.
"Try to go in as far as you can, Ahmed," Amme said. "Get us in closer."
"I don't think it'll go," Ahmed said, turning to face her.
"I know what can fit and what can't, Ahmed. Just go in farther. I won't be caught walking these streets. What will people say if they see us?"
"But memsa'ab..."
"Do it," Abu Uncle ordered.
Ahmed sighed and turned the car. The kids snickered and yelled, then smacked the trunk with open palms. The metal echoed. Ahmed mumbled that no one could recognize Amme and me with our chadors on, and we pretended no to hear any of it. The street was cobblestone and I assumed it had been built during the time of Nizam. Today, back alleys were nothing but dirt pathways. A sign of progress, indeed. The engine groaned but the car only inched forward as the kids pretended to push the Fiat from the sides and back. Ahmed drove us in about five feet then simply turned off the engine. The children's sneers grew louder.
On either side of us were white cement row houses, the roofs of corrugated sheet metal, the windows barred, the wooden shutters wide open to catch what air there might be back here. Every ten or so feet a different-colored door---blue, orange, pink, shades of yellow---each color representing a different house.
"I'll run the rest of the way and see if he's in," Abu Uncle offered. He had an angular face with thick eyebrows.
Amme nodded. My uncle gave me a quick glance then tried on a smile. I stared at him, knowing he couldn't see anything but my eyes, so I needn't force an expression. He opened the door, which hit against the wall of a house, and squeezed out. I watched his black-and-red checkered shirt disappear around the corner as he ran down the length of the curved passageway.
"They call this Elephant Alley," Ahmed said, turning toward us. His lips were dark from smoking. "It's famous because not even an elephant could get through. It got stuck up there." He pointed in the direction Abu Uncle had just gone down. "It took the men four hours to pull out the dumb animal."
"People here are always forcing things to happen," I said, scrutinizing the whitewashed walls for any signs of skin or blood. There was none. "It's only the show that counts. Poor animal."
"It happened because of a wedding," Ahmed explained.
"Everything here happens because of weddings," I mumbled.
The driver kept talking on, "The groom was riding the elephant to meet his bride at the mosque down the street. The entire wedding band was here, you see, and they were playing on their trumpets and banging on their drums as they led the groom. This way the bride and guests know the groom has arrived. You'll see in just two days at your..."
"Ahmed," I warned. I wasn't in the mood to discuss my wedding. "You always talk too much."
"Sorry, Layla-bebe," he said, smiling. I was sure he thought that I was behaving as a bride should, bashful, too mortified to talk about the upcoming event---for it meant the loss of virginity on the wedding night---and I let him think this.
The children continued to pound on the trunk, the sound of the reverberating metal bringing women to their doorways and windows. They wore old cotton saris and one had a baby in her arms, its eyes lined black with kohl so the child wouldn't catch the evil eye. They stood just outside our car and watched us. Amme and I clutched the smooth fabric against our faces, my mother so hidden inside her veil that only half her eyes showed.
"Cover up," she snapped to me, but I ignored her. What more could I hide?
The car jiggled as the kids pushed against it. My stomach began to cramp at even this slight motion and I turned and gave the brats a nasty look. They didn't see me. So I imagined using my demonic powers. Maybe my eyes would turn red as I stared at them. Maybe I could fling them away without even a touch. But these were just images I had picked up in American horror movies. What did it mean, then, in real life, to be possessed?
Amme began whispering prayers for my salvation, her eyes closed, the veil's fabric rippling against here lips, and I realized there was nothing she could now do to save me.