[Issue 1 / May 2012]
Maplewood by Madhulika Liddle
This house reeks of viciousness. It hates me; I can tell. It wants me out of here. For Maplewood, I am an interloper. It hems me in, trying to suffocate me with its closeness. A malevolent closeness, not a loving embrace. As if it wanted to squeeze the life out of me. The windows are too few and too small. The rooms are too dark, the verandas beyond too close to the trees that surround the house.
I wish there were no trees here. I had read somewhere that colonial bungalows were designed to sit, grand and isolated, in large compounds. Sweeping driveways and neat spreads of neatly clipped lawn. The odd tree here and there, providing shade for the memsahib and the sahib when they condescended to go for a stroll or to take tea under the trees.
No other bungalows I have seen have trees like this, sticking right up to the house, trying to draw it into themselves. At night, lying awake in my bed, I can hear the rustle of leaves brushing against the roof tiles. I can hear odd noises – “Owls copulating,” my son said, when I told him. “You have a vivid imagination, Ma. Don’t get carried away.”
But sometimes I feel Maplewood will carry me away, not by my imagination, but by its trees. When there is a storm, the trees howl and shriek and blow in the wind, as if they want to carry Maplewood away with them, far away from this quiet little part of the world.
Where will they take it, I wonder? To some strange little corner of England? A place of rolling meadows and cotton wool clouds and cattle peacefully grazing? Was that the place the man who built this house hailed from? Or was he a city man? Someone, perhaps, from out of one of Dickens’s books. A man used to the squalor and stink of the seedier parts of London. A man who had lived so long in the close confines of that age and that place, he wanted to replicate it halfway across the world.
I don’t know what that long-ago man looked like. Is he the short, bearded man in a white suit who peers out from behind round spectacles in that yellowed photograph on the mantelpiece? Or the taller, broader man, standing in dress uniform in a studio, his hand resting on the hilt of a sword? Or the pixie-like man who sits sprawling in a garden chair? Is it one of the many people – each of them alone, staring in solitary splendour out of their picture frames – whose photos inhabit Maplewood?
Who knows. This house is full of photographs. Photographs that have been left behind, forgotten by those whom they should have kept alive for all eternity. Or at least as long as the photos survived.
I found the photographs when I first arrived in Maplewood. At first, it was exciting to unearth the past of Maplewood. I went through old trunks and chests, racks of mouldy and dusty books. I would find one photo, then another – sometimes of the same person, at a different stage in life: older, more weatherworn, more calloused, perhaps. But I could never find names to any of them.
I’ve never even been able to find evidence of the name for the house I live in. There is no sign outside, no plaque, no anything that stamps this bungalow as Maplewood. My husband Vivek had told me it was called Maplewood, and I never questioned that. Even though this is not a land of maples. There are sal trees. There are sheeshams and mangoes, a couple of guava trees. But no maples. Of course not.
Vivek inherited it from an old bachelor uncle – a man more wealthy than wise – who had bought it at an auction after the death of its last occupant, an old English clergyman who had stayed on in India after independence. Why, we did not know. How he happened to own Maplewood, we did not know. But when he died, Vivek’s uncle bid for Maplewood – and got it. He never lived here, except for a week shortly after it became his. “Just to get the feel of it,” he had said.
He willed it to Vivek, and Vivek never lived in it. Now that Vivek is gone, it has come to me. I had no place to go; the rented flat in the city was too expensive for me to afford on my own. And Maplewood, standing here in the back of beyond, stood vacant. “It’s the best place for you to stay,” my son said. “Nice and quiet. None of the mad hustle and bustle of the city.” He had paused and looked a little worried as he added, “You wouldn’t want to stay with me, would you?”
I couldn’t say so. Not after the nervous way in which he had said it.
Yes, it is quiet. It is laidback. The nearest shop is in the village, two kilometres down a dirt road. The village itself is hardly a coherent settlement: more a loosely connected bunch of huts and sheds, scattered across many acres. There are fields, and one mango plantation. The richest man –the one who owns the plantation – is the owner of the shop. I have seen him once, when my son first drove me here. Since then, I have not gone to the village. I have remained inside Maplewood.
The village comes to me, though, now and then.
Last night it did.
The monsoon is here, and the earth barely has time to dry after a shower before the clouds gather again. Yesterday evening, the sky was so grey and oppressive that I retreated from the veranda – the only place with any appreciable natural light – and went into the drawing room. Maplewood has electricity, but it is erratic. Yesterday there was none.
Meena lit a lantern and brought it into the drawing room. “I have made your dinner, memsahib,” she said. “I’ve left it on the counter.” She hesitated, as if reluctant to go on. She is a conscientious girl; I pay her for eight hours’ work daily, and she will not leave before those eight hours are over, not even if she really has nothing else to do.
After a few moments of silence, she put the lantern down on the little table beside my rocking chair and said, “I need to go now, memsahib. Before the rain comes.”
Meena must have got caught in the rain after all, I thought later. It began just minutes after she had gone. The first drops were fat and lazy, as if still wondering whether they should take the trouble of visiting Maplewood. Then, suddenly, the rain changed to a flurry – a mad, violent assault on the house. Heavy, fast-falling drops clattered against the roof tiles. Lightning flashed, thunder rattled the windowpanes. The trees fought back. Maplewood battled the elements, and I gripped the arms of my rocking chair and sat up straight and rigid, with my eyes closed.
I came awake sometime in the depths of the night, the sound of loud knocking still echoing in my head. My head throbbed, my throat was parched and my stomach complained because I had fallen asleep without dinner.
Someone was knocking – no, not even knocking, banging – at the door.
I called, asking who it was. There was no reply; perhaps my voice, a tremulous croak even to my own ears, was too low to be heard through the thick planks of the door. Perhaps the thunder and the rain drowned out every other sound. I got to my feet and padded across to peer out of the window next to the door.
It was a thin woman, her half-sari gleaming white under the enormous black umbrella she was holding. Even though she was standing in the veranda. I did not recognise her – I couldn’t see her face – but I stepped across to the door and opened it.
It was Gunvanti; I recognised her as soon as she said, “Baisahib.” I knew very few of the women from the village; this was one I did know, the only one who called me baisahib, rather than memsahib. I had never asked her why. She was old enough to have grown up when Maplewood still had its sahibs and memsahibs. Perhaps she thought ‘memsahib’ should be reserved for a white-skinned lady in dresses, wearing hats and high heels. Not a brown-skinned frump in a crumpled sari. For Gunvanti, ‘baisahib’ was all the respect I was entitled to.
Her bare feet were wet and muddy, but otherwise, she was all right. She put her umbrella down on the veranda and stepped up to the threshold, blinking in the light from the lantern. “Is Meena here, baisahib?”
Belatedly, I remembered that Gunvanti was related in some roundabout way to Meena. Meena’s mother-in-law? Grandaunt? Aunt-in-law? I wasn’t sure.
I shook my head. “She left. Just before the rain started. Why? Isn’t she home yet?” There was a sudden clap of thunder and both of us jumped. I beckoned to her to come in.
“I don’t know,” Gunvanti said. “I haven’t come from home. I was across the village, at Bhavani’s house. His wife was having a baby.”
I had forgotten Gunvanti was the local midwife. Someone had told me once. Perhaps it had been Meena, in one of her more chatty moments as she went about her work.
I sat down in my rocking chair again, and gestured to Gunvanti to sit. She did, on her haunches opposite me, gathering up the edges of her sari around her thighs. A scrawny but strong woman, perhaps as old as me, but with her hair was just beginning to turn grey. Not more salt than pepper, like mine. I asked her if she wanted tea, or something to eat. She shook her head. “Bhavani’s sister made tea for me. And I’m not hungry.” She rummaged about in the folds of her sari around her waist, and drew forth something – I couldn’t see what. “I’ll have a beedi, instead,” she said.
I had not expected her to ask me politely if I minded her smoking, but the matter-of-fact way in which she made herself at home startled me. She got up, went to the lantern, and lit her beedi from it.
I sat, stiff with indignation – I hate that pungent, all-pervasive smell of beedis – but I did not say anything. The flame in the lantern sprang up merrily, as if it rejoiced at my discomfort, when Gunvanti stepped back.
This house hates me. The furniture, the carpets, the clock on the wall, the lantern – everything that came with the house – hates me.
Gunvanti settled herself back on the floor, pulling contentedly at her beedi. “It was an easy birth,” she said. “Her second. The first one was bad. Bad for her, bad for me, bad for the baby. But we made it through that one, too.” She held the beedi cupped in one hand and peered at it for half a minute. Then she looked up at me. “What about you, baisahib? You have a son, don’t you?”
“Good. Any other children? More sons? Daughters?”
I shook my head.
“Your son lives in the city, baisahib? He came here two years ago, didn’t he? When you first moved into Maplood?” None of the villagers can pronounce Maplewood.
“Yes,” I said.
“He has not come since?”
“He is a busy man.”
“What does he do, baisahib?”
How did one say ‘software engineer’ in a way that would make sense to someone like Gunvanti? Even I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, but I knew it was something to do with computers. “Important things,” I said finally. “Things that help the city run.”
She looked up at me, puzzlement in her eyes. But when you’ve lived as long as I have – as Gunvanti has – you instinctively understand which questions will not be answered any further. You understand which questions cannot be answered. And you keep quiet, as she did.
Another puff at her beedi, a dry cough. Then she asked, “He is married?”
“Hmm. And still he does not have the time to come and see you? How does he know whether you’re well or not? Whether you need anything?”
I remained silent. What could I say? No? Yes? But no to what? Yes to what? Would I say yes, he knew? No, he didn’t know? Or no, I hadn’t told him? Or – the truth – which he had not guessed? Or, if he had guessed, that he did not have the time to think about it. And that I loved him too much to want to be a burden on him. Not monetarily, that much I was sure of. But emotionally I did not want him thinking of me as demanding.
“We talk on the phone sometimes,” I said.
She did not comment on that. All she did was give a lopsided smirk. As if she knew that was only part of the truth. Meena, chatting with Gunvanti, would probably have mentioned it. Meena, who would be around the house, sweeping the floor or mopping it at noon every Saturday when my son phoned. They would have shaken their heads about it, tut-tutted over this pathetic old woman who would be sitting next to the phone from ten in the morning, just waiting for it to ring. How she would pick it up as soon as it rang, even in mid-ring. And how short the conversation would be. A quick how-are-you and what’s-new. A polite, hurried conversation because one of the two people in it was eager to hurry on with life.
This conversation with Gunvanti, I thought, was the longest I’d had with anyone since the day I’d moved into Maplewood.
“There are no others?” Gunvanti asked. “You have no other relatives? No brothers? Sisters? Cousins? Nieces? Nephews? People on your man’s side?”
I mentally ran over the list of people who had once existed in my life. I had had no siblings. Yes, there had been cousins, five of them in all, on both my mother and father’s side. Our families were small. Perhaps our parents were progressive and in favour of population control way back then, when it wasn’t a big deal to have a horde of children. Or perhaps our parents just weren’t too interested in procreation or what went into it.
My cousins had had children. But it’s easy to drift apart, especially when everybody has their own life to live. Vivek had had a brother – dead seven years now from a very quick and sudden heart attack – and a sister.
“My husband’s sister is alive,” I replied. “She lives very far away.” And we never did like each other much, I added to myself. While Vivek was alive, there had been the occasional phone call – at Diwali, or on her birthday. But when Vivek died, that ended too. Her last phone call had come three years ago, when I was still in the city. My son had phoned to let her know of Vivek’s death, and she had asked to speak to me. “You know it will be impossible for me to get back to India in time for the cremation,” she had said. “But I’m sorry. You know that.”
As if she had not lost a brother as much as I had a husband.
Gunvanti stood up again, her hand resting briefly on one knee as she unbent herself. She went to the cold, long-unused fireplace and stubbed the remains of her beedi into it. I watched her as she stood there, one bare foot resting on the stone grate around the fireplace, one hand clinging to the mantelpiece. She stared into the fireplace – white-painted now, not blackened with soot, as it must have once been – and then, just as I was about to ask her if she was all right, she straightened.
“You should—” she began to say, but she was interrupted in mid-sentence. From outside, cutting through the sound of rain and thunder and wind, came the muffled shouting of a man. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but it was one word. The same word, repeated over and over, at brief intervals. As if he were searching for someone, calling and then waiting to hear an answering call, before calling again.
Gunvanti bustled away towards the door. She looked over her shoulder just as she reached the door, to say, “It’s my nephew. I’ll let him know I’m here.” She swung one leaf of the door open, passed through and tugged the door shut behind her. Even then, a gust of wind brought in enough water to wet the floor.
I sat in my chair, rocking slowly to and fro, straining to hear anything other than the storm outside. Who was this nephew? What was his name? What had made him come to Maplewood?
Would someone come to Maplewood someday, calling for me?
I tried to push the thought out of my mind. It was stupid, weak. I was a strong woman. I had always prided myself on my willpower, my ability to not crumble. I had worked through all the years between graduating from college, all the way till when Vivek had died. I had juggled home and hearth in a day and age when we didn’t have washing machines and microwave ovens, and in dire times when we couldn’t even afford a maid. I had put a brave smile on my face and said, “It doesn’t matter; I will manage.”
And I had. Managed well and proper, till the point where I was left alone with only the storm howling outside for company. And a village midwife who had taken refuge in this house.
The door opened again, and Gunvanti stumbled in, wiping rainwater off her face. She pushed the door shut behind her, and went back to stand next to the fireplace. That pensive look had gone; she was grinning now, chuckling as she squeezed the end of her cotton sari into the fireplace. “These children,” she said, wagging her head. “How they worry!” She stretched out her arms, spreading the thin cloth, flapping it about so that it would dry. It won’t, I wanted to tell her. Nothing dries in this house. It just stays in the air, mouldering and seeping into the fabric of Maplewood.
She turned to look over one bony shoulder at me. “That was Gokul, Bhavani’s wife’s younger brother.”
She must have noticed the puzzlement on my face. “Bhavani. The man whose wife just had a child.” I nodded.
“He came to check if I had reached home all right. Bhavani was very sorry, he said, that he’d been so caught up in admiring his child that he never even realised when I left.” The grin grew wider. I could almost see Gunvanti preening herself as she draped the still-damp end of the sari back over her shoulder and around her skinny waist, tucking it into her side.
“But you haven’t gone home,” I said. I hadn’t spoken for so long, my voice sounded loud and unnatural in the room.
“Hmm.” She lowered herself onto the floor. “Gokul went to my hut to check. When Meena told him I hadn’t come back, he went searching for me. He’d been searching this past half hour.”
“You should have told him to come in,” I said. “Where is he? Has he gone back home?”
She nodded, yes. “But he’ll be back. He said he’ll return once it stops raining.”
We sat there in that high-ceilinged room, two old women. One damp and thin and hungry – I had asked her again if she wanted tea or food, but Gunvanti had refused – but contented. The other dry and comfortable and jealous. Immeasurably jealous. I envied Gunvanti the people who surrounded her. The people, who needed her, cared for her. The young man who had walked through torrential rain to look for her. The man who had sent him, who had apologised for being too caught up in his own new child. The child she had helped bring into this world. The child’s mother. The child’s sibling, who had been through a difficult birth but had lived.
And what about the child you brought into this world, Maplewood asked, in a malicious whisper. What about him? Does he care for you? Does anybody care for you?
I don’t know when I nodded off. I had been sitting, chin resting on my chest, rocking gently in my chair one moment. The next, I was awake, and instead of the warm yellow glow of the lantern, there was the gloomy grey of the dawn filtering in through the thick wire mesh of the windows. Instead of the thunder and the incessant weeping of the skies, there was silence. Or almost silence; somewhere far away I could hear a crow cawing.
There was no one in the room. Sometime during the night, the storm must have stopped. Gokul must have come and taken Gunvanti back to her home.
I was home.
Or was I?
I sat in the rocking chair, staring at my lap. The pendulum clock on the wall counted out the seconds in loud, precise ticks.
One teardrop made its way down my cheek. It hung for a long moment from my jaw, and then dripped onto my hand.
I sat there, listening to the clock, watching my tears drip into my hands and soak into the wrinkles of my sari. When I finally straightened, it was to look up at the ceiling, at the fan that hung there. Like all that is in Maplewood, this is a fan of colonial days. The rod that attaches it to the ceiling is a heavy iron one. The fan itself is a heavy one, slow moving and majestic. Well able to take my weight.
Meena will come, perhaps in an hour or two. She will be upset. Perhaps she will scream. Or, sensible girl that she is, she will probably run straight back to the village to fetch some of the men. Gokul will be shocked. Gunvanti will perhaps remember snatches of our conversation. They will wonder why the memsahib, living all grand and alone in that big beautiful bungalow, resorted to this.
But there are, finally, people around me. They smile at me. The man with the beard and the round glasses, the pixie-like fellow, even the supercilious officer – his eyes do not smile, but he nods at me. An old man, in vestments. A woman with a bustle and a beautiful hat, her eyes sad. She has blue eyes, not the bleak brown of the sepia portrait on the shelf.
There are others, people I have never known by name, but whom I am familiar with, coming forward to me, reaching out, welcoming me into their midst.
They are Maplewood.
And finally, I am, too.
I am home.
Best-known as the creator of the fictional Mughal detective, MuzaffarJang(the hero of The Englishman’s Cameo, The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries, and forthcoming books in a similar vein), Madhulika Liddle began her writing career with short stories. Silent Fear, set in an eerie office after working hours, was her first piece of writing ever to be published – it won Femina magazine’s Thriller Contest in June 2001.
Since then, Madhulika has written a number of short stories, spanning genres that range from humour to social awareness to detective. Her story, A Morning Swim, about an eight-year old boy who dives into the Yamuna to collect coins, won the Overall Prize in the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association’s Short Story Competition in 2003. Other stories of hers have been published in magazines and anthologies, and a set of five stories won Oxford Bookstore’s e-Author Version 4.0 Competition in 2006.
In addition, Madhulika writes on travel, and on classic cinema (the latter primarily on her blog,www.dustedoff.wordpress.com). She also occasionally writes humorous articles for broadcast on All India Radio.
Madhulika lives inNew Delhiwith her husband, Tarun.