Fine, Mrs. Dhillon said, I’ll buy the flour myself.
She knew no one was listening. Her husband Jeetu was bent over his computer keyboard. Minty was holed up in her room and as if that weren’t separation enough, she had her plugged her ears with that angry music. So Mrs. Dhillon sighed a big sigh that no one heard and made her way to Madaan General Stores for the second time that day.
It was not a good day by any stretch of imagination. And that was just the weather. Mrs. Dhillon cursed her polyester salwar-suit as she valiantly tried to wipe the sweat dripping down the side of her forehead, stopping to sting her eyes before heading further south. But unless the day presented her with a tornado of fiery hail, nothing was about to deter her from the mission at hand.
Except that now she’d have to face Mr. Teji Madaan for the second time that day. Curse him for forgetting to put the atta into her shopping bag. I swear he does this on purpose…just to…just to…piss me off. Isn’t that the word Minty always flings at her? This food pisses me off, this house pisses me off, you piss me off. Mr. Teji’s crooked grin is upon her too soon.
“Teji ji. Once again you have forgotten to put full items. Please, quickly give the atta.”
“Arey, Mrs. Dhillon, good way to meet twice in one day, no? Nowadays who has the time to do their own shopping? They all send their boys. Just last month, I had to hire another chhottu because of all the home delivery calls. But these chhottus, I tell you. They want full-day salary for half-day work. Smoking and spitting and pissing just anywhere…”
There was that word again – ‘piss’. Maybe one of these days she would get through an entire day without having that vile syllable hurled at her. “Yes, yes. Of course, I understand. Yes, yes, thank you so much Teji ji. Ok then. Bye. Bye.” Mrs. Dhillon decisively brought Mr. Madaan’s rant to an end. The day wasn’t getting any cooler and now there was this 5kg sack of flour to haul up two flights of stairs.
“Hai rabba!” Thud. “Hai Rabba!” Thud. “Hai Rabba!” Thud. With every stair that she dragged the flour sack up, Mrs. Dhillon’s chappals were showered with white dust. At the first floor landing, she herself fell, thud, on the stairs and sat there heaving and wheezing, wiping her brow with her ineffective dupatta. Her hand rose to her chest and she focussed on steadying her breath. Why had Aman done this? Mrs. Ahluwalia from next door had told her not to get too upset – “These bacche, Kulwinder, they will do whatever they want. How can you stop them? Especially when they are so far away.” But still, thought Mrs. Dhillon, I am his mother. I have done nothing but support him. Even when Jeetu threw a fit about film school, she had been there, refereeing between father and son. The least she’d deserved was fair warning.
Mrs. Dhillon snapped out of her thoughts. Minty was standing behind her, one step up, white earphones streaming down her ears. Can’t remember the last time she was without those infernal appendages.
“What are you doing? You’re blocking the whole stairway!” Minty scowled and then leapt over her mother and the 5kg sack. “I’ll be back before dinner.” Mrs. Dhillon knew better than to ask her teenage daughter where she was going. At least, she knew Minty was a girl of her word. If she said she’d be back before dinner, she’d be back.
She gets that from me, thought Mrs. Dhillon, as her daughter disappeared around the bend of the banister.
Aman and Chloe decided to celebrate at the spot where they first met. It was a humid, mildly uncomfortable July afternoon and only two other tables were occupied around the periphery at Bryant Park. They carried their sandwiches and waters to one of the free benches. They set their lunches down, looked at each other and burst into laughter.
“A toast, Mrs. Dhillon,” Aman raised his bottle.
“Congratulations, Mr. Bernard,” Chloe clinked her bottle against his.
Last week, lying in Aman’s arms, Chloe had confessed certainty that she’d found her prince after kissing a thousand frogs.
“A thousand!” Aman had exclaimed.
Now she took his face into her hands and kissed him lightly on the nose. He smiled naughtily and croaked, “Ribbid!”
As the city boomed and rumbled around them, the two reclined on the bench, sipping their drinks and biting into their sandwiches. The surrounding high-rises seem to bend gently over them, forming a protective alcove; offering up an oasis of sense in an otherwise bewildering world.
Mrs. Dhillon had decided to throw a party. Nothing fancy, just a few relatives. Jeetu’s two sisters and their families, her brother Parmeet and his wife. Maybe Mrs. Ahluwalia. She’d told Minty she could invite her friends too but doubted anyone would show up. It’s ironic, she thought, how Aman had always been the easy one. It’d been Minty who gave Mrs. Dhillon sleepless nights with her dark moods. She barely had any friends besides Farhat, with whom she spent all her free time. The few times Farhat was over, the two girls would lock themselves in Minty’s room, chattering and laughing at god-only-knows what. Farhat, with her lily-white skin and Pathan height was a stunning girl. Well mannered too. Mrs. Dhillon just wished Minty had more friends. Sometimes she’d have nightmares that her only daughter would end up like Jeetu’s first cousin, Roop from Jalandhar. At 21, Roop had run away from home two nights before her wedding. Three years later she was traced to Gwalior, hair shorn, wearing oversized bush shirts and baggy trousers. She ran a paan shop and was living with a sullen, dark eyed woman called Kamal.
But Aman had surpassed Minty in giving his mother heartburn, leaving her with nothing to do but prepare a humble dinner for 15 odd guests. She cursed herself for not anticipating this day four years ago when Aman emailed to tell her about Chloe. He’d attached her photograph with the email. As the image inched down the screen, a skinny white girl emerged with dark brown hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. She was studying to be a lawyer and, he joked, would make enough money for both of them. Money, that Daddy was afraid he’d never make as a filmmaker. She’d laughed at the time and written back that Chloe was pretty.
The next time he called, she enquired after her, towards the end of the conversation. “And…how is Klo?” Aman had laughed out loud, wasting three expensive international dialling minutes before calming down. “Klo! That’s priceless! Babe, you’ll never guess what my mom just called you! Ma, she’s not Klo! Her name is Chlo-ee.” As Mrs. Dhillon bristled with embarrassment, Aman’s voice grew softer, “It’s okay Ma…Do you know what she called me when we first met? Aman Dylan. Like Bob Dylan! Wasn’t she silly?”
Once the decision to switch coasts was made, Aman & Chloe’s tiny apartment began to disappear into bubble wrap and cardboard boxes. Over the week before the move, the rooms progressively took on the monochromatic hue of beige walls. The young couple’s fingers were permanently anointed with black marker ink and every so often, the sound of sneezing could be heard from one of the two rooms. Every afternoon they would step out to the local deli but the nights were always spent at home. Sitting on cartons, eating pizza or Chinese takeout; then making love on the king-size mattress that stood out like an island of blue in a sea of light brown.
After the boxes were finally sent off, all that remained was a single potted fern. When Chloe watered it after sunset, Aman stopped her, “Mrs. Dhillon, what are you doing? Plants go to sleep after the sun goes down.”
She chuckled, “What?”
“Don’t laugh,” he said, “My mother taught me that.”
Jeetu was being cooperative for once. He still wouldn’t speak directly to her. It had been 5 years since he’d done that and Mrs. Dhillon had stopped questioning what she’d done to send her husband into his silent rage. Just as long as he helped around the house once in a while. Just as long as he joined her in putting up a brave pretence on occasions like today. Everyone invited had turned up and had been seated in the living room. Jeetu was regaling them stories from his college days, laughing, refilling his guests’ drinks; reminding Mrs. Dhillon of the first coffee he’d taken her out for in ’75.
Mrs. Ahluwalia joined Mrs. Dhillon in the kitchen. One pair of hands rolled out the dough, while the other manned the stove, dropping paper-thin discs of flour into sizzling hot oil. As the discs rose into triumphant, glistening puffs, Mrs. Ahluwalia twittered on about her Dimple’s misadventures in Melbourne. Kulwinder made the appropriate noises of commiseration but couldn’t shake off the heaviness in her belly that had nothing to do with the dahi-aalu breakfast from morning.
So when the phone rang, she immediately made for it, knowing it was imperative she reach it before anyone else did.
“Beta Minty? What happened?”
“Uff! Why do you always think something’s happened?”
“Accha so…don’t get angry ok? I need you to pick me up from the Grandex Mall.”
“I can’t right now, Minty. You know the party is happening, no? You promised you’d be here on time. Why can’t you take an auto? You need money?”
“I can’t just leave, ma. You have to come.”
“I told you, beta, I can’t leave the kitchen right now. All the guests are here. I’ll send Papa, ok?”
“No! Not him.”
Mrs. Dhillon took a long deep breath. Of course, something had happened. Of course, Minty needed her and not him. Of course, the only way she’d find out was if she went herself.
“Ok, I’m on my way.”
“Thanks Ma. Bring a couple of thousand.”
But Minty had hung up. Mrs. Dhillon whipped off her oil-stained apron and went back into the kitchen. Assured of Mrs. Ahluwalia’s support in holding down the fort, she promised a detailed report on return, gathered her purse and rushed hurriedly out the door. Sprinting past a confused Jeetu and expectant guests, she tossed a flimsy excuse of needing to pick up chocolate ice cream from Mother Dairy.
Minty and Farhat were located to a back room on the 2nd floor of the Grandex Mall. The store manager, whose office it was, informed Mrs. Dhillon that the girls had been caught shoplifting a combo pack of M&S underwires amounting to Rs. 1149.
“You are lucky, Mrs. Dhillon”, said the store manager (who reminded her, suddenly, of her puffed up puris), “I didn’t report these girls to the police. Who knows what would happen to them in the lock-up? You hear such terrible stories nowadays. And I could tell they come from good families. Isn’t it, Mrs. Dhillon? Isn’t it?”
“Yes, of course”, she agreed, knowing that the appropriate mix of gratitude, apology & acknowledgement of his superiority would do the trick. Plus the cash, adding a 100% tip over the price of pilfered goods for the man’s uncommon sensitivity at keeping her humiliation to a bare minimum.
The ride back was silent. Mrs. Dhillon wouldn’t have known what to say anyway. The child confounded her. Her black depths scared and intimidated her. She didn’t know where to place her affection anymore with this one. Mrs. D kept her hands steady on the 10-2 position on the steering wheel. Her gaze unwavering from the view in front. As they drove past Madaan Stores, she passed Mr. Teji bringing down the shutter for the day. He waved a friendly wave that was not returned by either mother or daughter.
Back home, the three walked in with a story of co-incidental meeting at the street corner. Oh, how silly! Mrs. Dhillon had forgotten to buy the ice-cream. Jeetu stepped, grudging & grumping, into the night to locate the one general store still open past nine.
After the guests had gone, Jeetu retreated back into his virtual world and Minty & Farhat ferreted themselves away into her room. Mrs. Ahluwalia was sent off with a plateful of leftovers and a watered-down recap of the evening’s events. Alone in her bedroom, Mrs. Dhillon sat down with the telephone in her lap and dialled Aman’s number.
“Hi, beta. Are you busy?”
“No, no, ma. Perfect timing. Chloe and I were just finishing breakfast.”
“Good. Good. You know we had a small party here. For you and Chloe. Everyone came. Parmeet Maama, Simran Aunty. They all send their love.”
“That was nice of them. I’ll upload pictures of the ceremony soon. You can send it to them.”
“Beta, can I speak to Chloe please?”
“Sure. One sec.”
Mrs. Dhillon took comfort from the sounds of the phone exchanging hands. In that moment, she wasn’t miles away from her son and his new family. She was there, watching the two exchange glances as Chloe took the phone, a bit nervously, rehearsing her opening lines. She heard Aman tell her about the party his mother had thrown in their honour that evening. She heard the involuntary intake of breath Chloe took before saying hello.
The conversation was short, stretching the extent of Mrs. Dhillon’s spoken English to its limit. It was a slow, halting exchange of banal niceties with a valiant effort on both women’s part to infuse warmth into it. In the end, it was all too much with Chloe failing to understand the last thing said to her. She said goodbye and returned the phone to her husband.
“I didn’t catch the last thing she said. Something in Hindi I think…”
Aman took the receiver and asked his mother to repeat what she’d said. Then he smiled and telling her he loved her, hung up.
“So? What did she say to me, huh?” Chloe enquired with a naughty grin. “Some ancient curse condemning the evil white woman to eternal damnation for stealing her son’s affections?”
“She said ‘ Tumhey duniya ki har khushi miley. Mere hissey ki bhi’.”
Mrs. Dhillon, may you be blessed with all the happiness in the world – including my share.”
This story was first published in 2010 in 'First Proof: The Penguin Book of New Writing'