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Champa Bilwakesh

This world is for smart people. Courage is difficult. People like me can only live small lives in mediocrity, quaking in fear of the world out there, so full of risks. I have merely survived. I lacked those images that would have taken me to a different place, where I was strong, a mother. Had I only held on to Maya, had never let her go, grabbed the life I was offered and shaped it somehow. No. I gave up Maya to her father, to Vijay, whose deliriums had tormented me as much as they did him. I did not fully understand the darkness of it until one day, six months after he had made me leave our home, he fell from the third floor flat we had once shared.

"Tell me when you manage to find a place and the means to bring her up," Vijay's elder brother told me at the funeral, without meeting my eyes. She was eleven years old. The top of her head was level with my shoulder blade. She went with him to Hyderabad to live with his family. I got intermittent information about her but never saw her again.

Memories are terrible things. They spring like a jaguar, fangs exposed. In all these years I had managed to keep them caged. I imagined if I dress appropriately, grind out my days teaching Hygiene and Chemistry to the girls at the St.Ursuline Academy, keep my flat spotless and never let my spending exceed my income, things will all even out. When news came to me that Maya was leaving on a scholarship to the university in Boston, I willed myself to believe that she was thriving, although I had no evidence of this. Under the bed covers at night I slept with the unbearable weight of Maya on my breath.

And then, this happened: Six weeks ago, I heard the voice of a woman named Jayashree over the phone line all the way from America. "You don't want your granddaughter in a foster home with strangers, Aunty. You must come. She's only six."

After the conversation was over I stood looking at the phone without faith and filled with doubts. Only later did my mind grasp the fact that Maya had named my granddaughter Kiran—a beam of pure light.

Jayashree was holding a sign up with my name, Ila Joshi, when I came out after clearing customs. I knew at once that this was someone who would not shirk responsibility. She was dressed in a black sweater, denim jeans, and a puffy green vest. She wore her hair short, cut with bangs, and she reminded me of Shirley MacLaine as a geisha in a movie that I saw a long time ago. She took my handbag from me and slipped it over her shoulder. "It's OK, Aunty, just come please," she said over my protest to let me carry my own bag, and led me out through the swishing airport doors.

A blast of cold wind took my breath away, my eyes watered. I thanked Mrs. Kulkarni silently for insisting that I take her daughter's coat. I followed the young woman blindly, as we crossed the road and entered a parking lot.

Jayashree drove a small truck that was splattered with mud. The inside of the cab smelled of cigarette and coffee. Her husband built houses, she said, and she was a partner in the business. She drove the truck expertly weaving in and out, through a tunnel, and then we were on a highway flying over the rooftops of Boston. Cars zoomed all around us, in a determined fashion and at terrific speed. This illusion of control over reckless speed gave me a strange comfort. I looked at Jayashree and wondered if she climbed up roofs and nailed timber with her husband.

"Maya will plead insanity," Jayashree said, shifting gears as she explained how the attorney was planning to handle Maya's case. "You can visit her on Thursday."

"Today is what . . . Tuesday?"

"It is Tuesday, Aunty. You left India on Sunday night, your time."

I looked at my watch and adjusted it to this different time zone, behind by several hours. If only it is that easy to reset your life.

Sunlight glittered outside, belying the bitterness in the wind that blew the leaves off the trees. My daughter was in a prison cell somewhere in this city of leafless trees. I suppressed images of large men in uniforms looming over Maya, and pulled the collars of my coat close to get some warmth for the deep chill in my bones.

"The social worker will come by to talk to you. They have to see if Kiran and you will bond, to see if you are capable of caring for her."

I looked at her with dismay. Would they declare me unfit and guilty?

"Aunty, these are just routines, don't worry about it. They are concerned that you live in India, but they know you are the only family Kiran has. I have explained everything to them, about the visa problems, about everything."

I wondered what explanations she gave to the social worker. Maya had stood below a poster of a glittering European city that I had hung in a moment of hope, watching Vijay pushing at my shoulder, out, get out. Facing the door that was closing on my face, I tried to think fast. The women's hostel, which I passed by everyday on my way to work, was located behind Hotel Ashok where traveling wholesale traders took up rooms for nights that they spent with their guests. I could not imagine taking Kiran with me there even if Vijay would let her go. I raised my hand to knock on the door, let me in, please. At the same time a weight shifted inside me. I am free. I slowly dropped my hand, picked up my suitcase, walked to the bus-stand, and took the bus to the hostel in Himadevi Gully, all the time tasting the grit from the street between my lips. Maya's questions came to me much, much, later in a letter with no return address.

"Has she healed?" I asked.

"Who? Kiran?"

I had totally forgotten the child, my reason for being here. I nodded.

"It has been six weeks and she has healed nicely. There's a long scar on the upper arm but it will fade. She's actually doing very well. Children bounce back quickly," Jayashree said glancing up at her rear view mirror before switching lanes. "Carol, the neighbor who is caring for her now, will keep her while we visit Maya. It is best we go alone this first time."

I tried to straighten up so I could see the road ahead of us. Jayashree explained visiting hours, procedures and precautions, things we are not allowed to do such as hug for too long, or bring food. When she turned towards me, her eyes were bright and flashing. "Martin left. You know that, right?"

I shook my head, I didn't know. Even though I may or may not meet the man, Kiran's father, I know the destruction that trails the leaving.

"Just packed his bags and went back to his wife, the bastard. Ten years they were together."

"When did she, how long—

"That very night." Jayashree took a deep breath. "It has been going on for a long time, too long. Off again, on again, she was going crazy. Nobody could tell her anything, she had become . . . it was useless. She was unraveling. She couldn't sleep, she wouldn't eat, losing weight. It was impossible to get through to her. The night that it happened, we were not in town, none of her friends were home. It was Thanksgiving, a holiday here. She had left eighteen messages in my answering machine."

We pulled into a drive that ended at two massive garage doors painted white. A brick wall rose like a steeple above it with a single window with black shutters. We walked up a narrow walkway that was carved out of the huge mounds of snow. I stepped carefully over the patches of ice and snow. Inside there was a fireplace but no fire and it was even colder than it was outside. Jayashree showed me how the thermostat worked and something metallic revved up below us. The kitchen cabinets were lined with cans and boxes and provisions and she showed me where the tea was, and where the sugar was. There was milk in the fridge, dishes covered with foil on the table. I thanked Jayashree for her kindness.

Magnets in the shape of tiny letters clung to the refrigerator doors. Kiran had colored in a necklace of beads around a pumpkin. From the way she had placed the dots, carefully and evenly spaced, I imagined the child: a small face buried under a mop of dark curls, delicate chin tucked in and bent over her work in that sweet concentration that only children possess.

"Why don't we take Kiran with us when we go on Thursday?'

Jayashree looked at the picture I was looking at for a moment, then shook her head.

"The assault charge complicates everything. Maya will be tried for attempted murder when she is declared fit to stand trial."

Jayashree grabbed her coat, her hat. She needed to get back to the office, it was payroll day. Carol would bring Kiran home from school at two.

I felt as though I would not be able to breathe in this cold house if she left.

"Stay, Jayashree. Just for a minute, OK?"

She paused in the midst of pulling her coat on and looked at me. We went and sat down on a sofa in the living room. Sunlight at the window behind us created an illusion of warmth.

"When did Maya ask to send for me?" I tried to keep my voice natural, an ordinary question any mother would ask.

"She didn't. Her counselor found your address and number in her address book and gave it to her attorney. But don't repeat this to anyone; it may not have been the proper thing to do, illegal or something. She was just helping."

I looked up at the gray patch of sky captured within the steel window frame and the cold glass.

Jayashree touched my shoulder. "Anyway, she was not in any shape to say anything when I called you," she said. "She's a lot better now, under medication."


"Yes. They are afraid she may try to take her life."

I pressed my hands to my eyes.

"That man . . . he will get custody of the child?"

"Hell no!" Jayashree stood up and looped her scarf around her neck. "He abandoned Kiran. He might fight for it. Let him, he'll lose," she said, pulling on her crimson colored gloves.

She looked down at me and sat back down. "Aunty, I am so glad you came," she said pressing my hand. "It's a long way and all this must be so difficult for you. I thought you might decide not to come, but here you are."

We stood up. An overgrown pine bush obstructed a clear view of the street from the window. Dry leaves that were still clinging to the trees trembled in the wind. A foot or more of snow covered everything like a rug, except for the street which looked like a dirt road. Across the street the doors of the houses were shut and their insides hidden behind curtains. Massive amounts of snow. The room where I stood was bare except for the single sofa that looked new. The hollow house loomed behind me. I watched as Jayashree backed out of the drive and then whizzed off, leaving the street still and cold and silent.

I strolled through the house. There was a car in the garage. I paused at the dining room next to the kitchen, a place to gather for meals, but with no furniture. A huge Chinese fan designed with blue storks against a gold sky hung on the wall. Two layers of curtains over the windows kept the outside out. Then I saw the smear of a stain just below the fan, a child's handprint. I peered at it closely and it caught me like a smack to the head. The child's skin, tight and clean, tearing open like silk under the knife her mother had wielded, a struggle while Maya plunged the knife into her own body, the terrified child tearing blindly around the house leaving handprints, to escape the demon, a bag of mere flesh, bones, and blood, bent on self-annihilation. Finally catching up with Kiran, Maya draws her into an embrace, huddling with the child while her mind gets leached of memory and the blood pools around them. This is how the police found them. If Jayashree had not called the police to check on her friend . . .

Maya required sixteen stitches on her left shoulder, chest, and arm. Kiran only a couple on the upper arm. Who would stab her own shoulder?

I had thought I had settled my life somehow and that peace would come, and now I felt the dangerous weight of loosened boulders. The distance I had traveled to arrive in this icy cold country gripped me. Shadows of tree limbs moved on the walls against a brilliant sunlight that had suddenly filled the vacant room. It brushed across and washed the walls and ceiling with brilliance, transforming the vacant room before fading as suddenly as it had appeared, then swelled again briefly only to subside.

I realized I was quite exhausted. My eyes seemed to sink into their sockets. I could not even remember anymore how many hours had passed since I left home. I went back to the sofa in the living room and decided to close my eyes a bit before the neighbor brought Kiran home. When the phone buzzed I groped for the receiver at my bedside table, but the receiver became a rope in my hand. I saw someone standing in the hallway, the windows behind her brilliant with circles of light.

Then I saw the child. It had been the doorbell.

She was leaning over me, examining my face, her breath on me. Beneath the dark eyebrows of her mother's, Kiran's eyes were steady and unperturbed as she looked into mine. I sat up, fully awake now.

The woman who brought Kiran home smiles at me. It is dark outside.

"We buzzed several times. Jayashree said you might have jet lag."

She is tall and white, her curly hair is brown. She is wearing a man's boots. She must be the neighbor, Carol. I stumble as I try to take a step. Kiran runs to the other end of the sofa, plops down, and watches me.

"Ila Joshi," I introduce myself to the woman.

Carol's hands are warm and big. She turns to Kiran.

"Kiran? Aren't you going to say hello to grandma?"

"Ajji," I correct quickly. "I'm her ajji."

Kiran says nothing.

"Are you OK?"

I realize Carol is asking me. I don't know if I am doing OK, how would I know? I nod so she would not think I don't understand English.

"Yes, yes! Yes. Thank you," I say brightly.

She has left her own child in the car and needs to go. She gives me a slip of paper with names and numbers written in a large script, and tells me some more things most of which I forget as soon as she finishes talking. I stand at the doorway and bid goodbye and she makes her way through the snow-rain and blowing wind and reaches her car and waves to me. I wave back and watch the car driving away. I close the door and turn around. Maya's child is flat on her back on the sofa. Her thin leg kicks up and down.

"Kiran, would you like some cocoa?"

The child jumps off the sofa and lifts her arms. I help her out of the coat and then follow her to the kitchen where I turn the light on, and pour some milk into a saucepan. I make cocoa for Kiran and some tea for myself at the stove.

Kiran opens the cabinet below me and pulls out an orange plastic box full of crayons and sheets of paper. I crouch down next to her and see the drawings she has made—a whale coming out of the waves, and a child watching it from the beach.

The whale has dark curls around the face but no other features. This moves me for some reason.

"Very nice," I tell her.

She keeps working on her drawing.

"Kiran, do you know who I am?"

She quietly plays with a toy she has found inside the box for a while as though she didn't hear me but I watch the color rising to her cheeks. She nods her head, her curls shake. It would be a long time before Kiran would be able to look her mother in the eye.

When Maya was two, such a long time ago, I had returned from a lengthy hospital stay. She was with the ayah I had hired to take care of her. She saw me approaching through the open gates. I crouched down and called to her but she turned away and held her arms up to ayah, jumping up at her, asking to be picked up. When I picked her up and held her to me, her cheeks flushed and she avoided my eyes, doing something busy with her hands. I called to her several times. "Maya! Look at Mummy! Baby, look at Mummy!" I shook her fearfully. Why would she not look at me, what's happened to her? Finally she looked up, gazing for a long time into my eyes, greedily feeling my face, my eyes, lips, cupping my cheeks, as though only by touch and feel she could confirm that I was back.

I am back now, baby.

I extend my hand to Kiran. Her hand is weightless like a blossom on mine and I close my hand over it. I lift her up and place her on my lap and we sit like that and finish our drinks.

I am in Maya's bedroom. There is a moon outside the window, a bright disk in a clear sky. I hear the moaning of pigeons although there are no birds, gurgling water, and the hissing of steam. There is a thunderous sound and I realize there is a train somewhere in the distance, and silence again. Small sounds of nips and clicks. But no human voices.

Kiran is asleep in the room next to me. She had insisted she wanted a bath after dinner. I had put her in the tub with a pail and a small mug that I found in the cabinet under the sink. There were some squeeze-toys in the tub. I shampooed her hair and rinsed it. I asked her to stand up so I could soap her back. She is lean but strong, like her mother was at that age. My soapy fingers slipped over the bumps on Kiran's arm. I willed myself not to jerk my hand away. I wrapped her in a towel and lifted her from the tub, and her arms went around my neck. She tightened them and held on, smelling of water.

Below me is the drive, the silent faces of the houses across the street, and behind them moonlight that spills over pale snow-covered fields where nothing grows. Maya must have walked the floors of these rooms, looking out this very window at this landscape that is fearsome in its beauty and so endlessly lonesome. Eighteen messages into a phone that rang into the void. At what point did she wake up the child and take her downstairs?

The dark sky outside the window is enormous. Maya is being held at a prison for women. I stroke the fluttering at the hollow spot at my throat. Her questions to me came a few years after she met this man Martin, and had his child. How could you, she had asked in her letter. "Only one thing was important to you, your own happiness."

It had wiped all explanations right out of my lips. There was some happiness after all even in my sordid solitude. How could I deny it?

The happiness I had sought was in the arms of a student at the college of commerce. We met at a coffee shop on MG Road, and soon after that he came home every Thursday afternoon after class. He had smooth hands the color of honey. When he entered me I thought of Vijay and the madness that was in him that threw my insides in such disarray. The relief that I experienced with my young student's body restored me. One day Vijay came home early with the flu, and in the curved space made by my lover's shoulder and neck, I looked at my husband standing at the doorway. That night he threw me out.

One day after work I bought some samosas at the Frontier Snacks and met Maya at her school. Back in the hostel I made tea for both of us in my immersion kettle and we munched our snack as we talked, then I took her home in an auto-rikshaw before Vijay got home. I met her again the next week, and again the week after. I would buy her comic books, and other small things like nail polish, a Cadbury bar. She spoke very little and did not indicate whether she liked or disliked our little sojourns.

Vijay came to my hostel one afternoon and told the hostel manager the truth. I ran to keep up with his long strides, pleading with him only to let me see Maya. He ignored me, slammed the taxi door shut, and patted the driver's shoulder: "Chalo!"

The hostel manager evicted me. I was not single, he said, I was a mother and a wife. I had means of support and I should go back to my husband. Women who leave in search of their own pleasure cannot be endured, the court declared, and Vijay obtained sole custody of Maya.

One afternoon six months after Vijay took Maya away, she got off the rikshaw that brought her home from school and saw her father fall head first from the balcony of our third floor flat. I sat next to Vijay and held his hands at the St. Joseph's Hospital for the two days that it took him to die.

Kiran says something in her sleep and I hear the child's voice through the wall. I still my breath and wait to see if she would go back to sleep. I imagine her sleeping with her cheek pressed to the pillow, warm in her pajamas and the blanket I have tucked her in. I feel the imprint of her hands on my shoulders and neck where she had clung to me as I lifted her from the water. I smell the clean fragrance of her skin, and my heart stops for a moment in fear of my own inadequacy.

I lie down in my bed. I stare at the dense darkness gathered at the ceiling. The cold seeps deep into my bones and I turn and crunch down on my side in an attempt to gather some warmth into me. I recall the golden light that washed the walls and lit up the room briefly this afternoon, the way it filled it with color and then faded, like the rhythm of life-giving breath itself that enters and leaves the body, and returns. I pull the cover over my head, and inside the tent that it makes my breath warms and expands and touches my brows, eyelids, my cold nose. Gradually, in bits and pieces of color, the room and its contents condense glassily into me.

Champa Bilwakesh lives with her husband in Andover, MA. She earned her MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her story "The Boston Globe Personal Line" was published by Kenyon Review, Fall 2005. Nominated for the Ploughshares Emerging Writers issue, it won honorable mention in the Pushcart Prize XXXI. It has been translated into Italian for the online magazine, El Ghibli. Her other works have won prizes in the Katha Contest and appeared in India Currents, and Monsoon Magazine. Her first novel is due to be released in 2014.

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