No explanation, no apology
We Vote with our Right Hand
by Anjuli Pandavar
The peace and quiet stand out in sharp relief against the day that's been. Peter Morgan and his wife, Phyllis, aren’t saying much these nights. They can hear their son still pottering about in his room. Their daughter, though silent, they know is studying for her exams that are coming up soon.
“I’m puzzled, you know,” says Peter.
Phyllis moves closer to him. She rests her head on his chest. They feel they are together in this.
“It can’t be meant to be this way,” he says.
“I’ve been feeling that too,” she says. “There’s something wrong about it all, just plain wrong.”
He brings his lips to her hair. It smells like the day they met, when he lied to his parents just so he could get closer to her and smell her hair again. He doesn’t feel guilty about that anymore. We have been blessed, he thinks.
“I’ve prayed and asked the Lord for guidance. You know I have. But it is not what He wants for me at this time, it seems. Do you think our faith is weak, my love?”
The curls on his chest were once bronze. She still runs her fingers through them and it thrills her just as it did long ago, when they stole moments together. “Please don’t think that, Peter. Of course I don’t think that. How could our faith be weak, if it’s brought us this far?”
“God held His peace about tomorrow.” There's a thud overhead as something drops in their son’s bedroom, followed by shattering glass and a swear word.
“What was that?” says Phyllis, no longer dozing.
“That noise from Robbie’s room.”
“Oh, probably just a book or something.”
“Robbie doesn’t read, Peter. Becky does, and books aren’t made of glass.”
“I tell myself stick and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me. I actually said it out loud today, like a child. They’re going to crucify me.”
“They’re going to crucify us.”
“Yes, of course. I’m sorry, love.”
“We need to trust in Him who has guided us all our lives, Peter. We are rich in blessings.” She listens for any further sound from the children’s rooms.
“It’s just ugly,” says Peter eventually. “The whole thing’s just horrible. I mean, she’s been working for the Church for what, seventeen years? You should know.”
“Father William first offered that she could play the organ at weddings. Not everyone was happy about that, I can tell you. She was what we then still called a 'fallen woman'. She was never going to have a well-paying job, was she?”
For the next few minutes they doze in and out of their troubled thoughts.
“Good night, Phyllis.”
“Good night, my love.”
They kiss. They still do.
The tick-tock-tick-tock of the ornate grandfather clock provides relief from the thoughts that everyone in the meeting room would rather not dwell on. There’s much avoidance of eye contact as like-minded seeks out like-minded.
The minister walks in. He cranes his neck to see the clock beside the door.
“Morning Father,” “Good morning Father,” accompany the minister to his seat in the middle on the slightly-curved side of the imposing table.
The minister looks over his notes, but soon fidgets with his pen and looks at the clock again.
Around the table, pairs of heads lean in towards each other in hushed conversation. Peter and Phyllis, as well as one or two other couples, are either staring at the table, or pouring water.
The minister stares at the seat across from him as if interrogating it. It’s the only empty one in the room. He pushes his glasses back up his nose.
Someone's clicking a pen.
The minister looks at the clock.
The organist, a woman of slight build, enters the room with her head high and her back straight. Foundation helps with the bags beneath her eyes. She goes directly to the empty seat.
“Good morning Father, everyone.” She nods around the room and makes to sit down.
“Shut the door,” says the minister.
She puts down her bag, hangs her coat over the back of the chair and returns to the door to shut it. The minister looks at the clock and flinches. She’s on time.
“Now we all know why we’re here today,” starts the minister. “Are the minutes being taken?”
“Yes, Father,” says the minister’s wife beside him. Peter hadn’t noticed her until this moment. The organist takes her seat. Perhaps Phyllis hadn’t noticed the minister’s wife up till now either. She’s had her eyes shut for most of the time, as if in prayer.
“The procedure for today is laid out on the sheet in the front of the pack, as is the motion we’re voting on today, should anyone need to refresh their memory.” He casts his eye quickly around the table. “I now bring this matter to the vote.”
Phyllis reaches for Peter’s hand under the table.
“All those in favour of the motion, raise your hand.”
Eighteen people raise their hands; six do not.
The minister regards each of the three couples in turn.
Peter finds his expression hard to read.
Phyllis squeezes his hand.
In a strangely hollow voice, the minister continues, staring hard at the organist and then through Peter to somewhere behind him, as if he sees something there. “Those against?”
Two hands are raised.
The minister turns crimson. “We vote with our right hand, Peter Morgan!”
Peter quickly pulls his hand from Phyllis’ and raises it.
“Minute:” says the minister with deliberate articulation. “Peter and Phyllis Morgan voted against the motion.”
Peter’s throat is dry and there is a ringing in his ears. Phyllis’s clenched fist rests on his thigh.
“For: eighteen. Against: two. Abstentions: four. The motion is therefore carried, sadly, not unanimously. Miss Wilkinson will be escorted off the premises forthwith.”
The crucifix on the wall behind the minister looks like it’s just this moment cast its eyes down.
“There being no other business, this meeting is closed.”
Softly, melodiously, the dignified grandfather clock chimes the hour.
Becky rushes in to find the kitchen window steamed up. She quickly pulls the kettle from the hot plate, bringing the deafening whistle to an end. She turns around to find her parents clinging to each other at the table.
“You’re here! Didn’t you hear the kettle screaming away?”
Her parents look up with eyes like beagles’, ashen-faced.
“Mum? Dad? What happened?”
Robbie barges in through the back door. “I heard the kettle boiling and—what’s going on?”
“Robbie, Becky, please sit down.”
“Why, what’s up, mum?” The children sit down slowly, not taking their eyes off their parents.
Peter looks at his son and sees the minister’s strange expression. He looks at his daughter and sees it there, too. He grabs his hair in his fists and stares hard at the table between his elbows.
“We want you to know that we love you with all our hearts and we will always love you. Always. No matter what.” Robbie and Becky look at each other, then at their parents.
“You can’t be getting div—”
“Your father and I need to ask you something.” Tears well up in Becky’s eyes. Robbie’s throat feels tight. “We hope you trust us enough—will trust us enough—to share with us, if ever either of you should decide to become… to become...”
“Decide to become what, mum?” says Becky, her voice shaky and high-pitched.
Peter gets up and goes into the garden. The gnome has what’s by now becoming simply ‘that expression’.
Becky notices Robbie regarding his father through the open kitchen door. Her brother rubs his smooth chin, as he always does when he’s troubled.
“Dad,” calls Robbie as he follows his father down the path, stopping every few steps as if to gauge something.
In the shed doorway, Peter turns around, holding onto the frame. It occurs to Becky that her father used to have to stoop to get in that door.
“Dad,” repeats Robbie. His voice sounds off-key. He stops. “Dad… father… daddy,” he says, unsure whether to take the next step.
It’s not her mother’s voice that makes Becky jump, but the accuracy of her perception.
“You’re wondering about men?” says Phyllis behind her.
“Yes,” says Becky, “And whether I’m going to be like you.”
“Would you like to be like me?”
“What’s going on with you and dad, mum?”
“You don’t have a boyfriend yet.”
“You and dad weren’t sitting here like zombies while the kettle melted because I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Is there any boy you especially like?”
“Mum! What is going on?” Becky starts crying again.
“I’m sorry, darling,” Phyllis gets up and takes her daughter in her arms, holds her. “I’m sorry we frightened you,” she whispers. “We are not getting divorced. Please put that out of your mind. Your father and I are stuck with each other.”
“But you still love each other, don’t you?”
“Yes, we do. As much as ever.”
“Let’s sit down. Come, darling. I’ll make us some tea. I think the water’s ready.”
They laugh and realise they’re exhausted. During Phyllis’s tea-making, neither of them speak. She puts the tea on the table. It’s Becky’s favourite mug.
“Now then,” says Phyllis, “We don’t have to have this whole conversation today—”
“Mum, I want the whole conversation today, now—” She pauses, considers, “—Please.”
Phyllis gathers herself and says, “You know Miss Wilkinson.”
Becky stares blankly.
“Our organist. In church.”
“I don’t think you know her son. Do you?”
“No. Mum, you’re not trying to—”
“Oh, no, no, no. Nothing like that.” Phyllis half-giggles, shuffles on her chair and yaws her shoulders.
“Her son is gay. I mean, he says he’s gay.” She stares intently at her daughter. “You seem to know this already. I thought you said you don’t know him.”
“I don’t know him, but why are we talking about this?”
“Because, Rebecca, she didn’t bring him up that way.”
“Oh, I get it. And you didn’t bring us up ‘that way’ and now you’re worried that Robbie or I might be ‘that way’. Now how can you be sure if she had no idea, despite bringing him up ‘the right way’?”
“Don’t mock me, Becky.”
“I’m not mocking you, mum. I’m just spelling it out to myself. So what if?”
“What if what?”
“What if Robbie or I are gay?”
Phyllis flinches and sits up straight. “I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why you’d want to do such a thing to us, or to yourselves. Your father and I have tried our best to give you a good example of a normal life, but it seems anything is possible these days, even—” She pauses. “We will always love you as our children.”
“And our partners, who will not be your children?”
Phyllis jolts. “Rebecca. Please answer your mother one question. Are you gay?”
“Mum, I don’t see what that has to do with anything, but if it makes you happy, no, I am not gay.”
“Oh thank you, sweet heavenly Father. Thank you. Thank you.” Phyllis’s eyes are pinched shut so tight and her entwined knuckles squeezed so white, that Becky sees a little girl praying that her grandmother not die. When Phyllis finally opens her eyes again, she seems cast adrift and pitiable.
Becky moves her chair closer to Phyllis’s, takes her mother’s face gently in her hands, and lays her head on her shoulder. She feels her mother’s tears seeping through her t-shirt. “There, there,” she says.
“She had him move out, you know?” says Phyllis, sounding very far away.
“Who had whom move out?”
“Miss Wilkinson. She had her son move out when he told her he was …gay.”
“She said she didn’t bring him up to be gay, but of course not. No one with any morals brings up their child to be gay. Miss Wilkinson is a decent person. She’s had to choose between providing a roof to someone like that and denying a roof to her own son. It’s not for us, who didn't face that test, to approve or disapprove. What must the poor woman not be going through now?”
“So is that what you and dad had going on for all of last week?”
“The church told her to go. She’s not our organist anymore.”
“What? Because her son’s gay?”
“No. Because she kicked him out.”
“So …you and dad agreed with that?”
“No, we didn’t. We were the only one’s who said she should stay.” On the table, the tea stands quietly untouched.
“People assumed we voted against because we agree with what she did, but we thought it was cruel and heartless to take away from the little she was already getting, on top of everything else she’s going through. But no one would even give us a chance to say that. Some of them called us homophobic bigots. That really hurt. And haters, they called us, and hypocrites and other awful words for nasty people.” Her mother looks at her with the saddest possible eyes. “We’re not bigots, Becky. Do you think we’re bigots, your father and I? Are we bigots?”
Becky puts her mother’s head back on her shoulder. She strokes her hair and holds her. “No, mum. You’re not bigots,” says Becky. “You’re not bigots.”
Robbie stands on the threshold of the shed, one foot out, one foot in. He’s never actually been in here, not since being told off as a child. He stands there, feet facing forward, torso sideways, like an ancient Egyptian figure whose tomb wall has vanished.
“Dad, are you and mum getting divorced?” he says in his new, terrible voice.
Peter grimaces, his left hand squeezes his right fist.
“No, son,” he says, straining to maintain eye contact. “Your mum and I are together forever. You can be sure of that.”
“Then what’s going on? What was mum talking about?”
Peter sighs heavily. “I’m sorry that we scared you.” He supports himself against the workbench, then drops into the chair. He’s worn out. His son is frightened.
“Sit down, son,” invites Peter, head in hand.
Robbie looks around.
“I mean, find somewhere to sit,” says his father with a sweep of the arm and just a hint of a smile in his eyes. Peter surveys the shed and seems to reflect.
Robbie perches himself on a box and waits. “Dad?”
“Oh, sorry son. Yes. What was I saying?”
“You were going to tell me what’s going on with you and mum.”
“Of course I was.” He sits up a bit straighter, looks at the innards of a clock scattered across his workbench. He picks up the magnifying glass and puts it away. There’ll be no more tinkering on old timepieces today. “Miss Wilkinson is no longer with us.”
“Miss Wilkinson is dead? The organist?”
“Oh no, she isn’t dead. Sorry. I should choose my words more carefully. She’s not at our church anymore.”
Robbie’s expression is blank. He doesn’t move. He watches his dad thinking, searching. He’s never seen his father unsure before. Somehow, this emboldens him.
“You’ve had, er, sex education at school, haven’t you?”
“Oh good. Good. That’s good. That’s very good. How’s that new football pitch? Is it still good?” He seems perky.
“Yes, Miss Wilkinson. I haven’t forgotten.”
“So tell me.”
“Miss Wilkinson, you know, our organist. She got expelled from the church today because she—” He pauses, considers, “—her son is gay.”
“I, I don’t understand,” says Robbie.
Peter’s perkiness is short-lived. “Son,” he says, “I quite understand how you feel. But, perplexing as it might be, even wrong—”
“It is wrong,” says Robbie, his lips tight.
“Yes, it is wrong. You’re right.”
“But your mum and I were against it, you know. We were the only one’s against it.”
“You were against it?”
“Yes. Isolated we were, on our own. But we stood our ground.”
“Why did you and mum look so freaked out in the kitchen and why did mum make that speech?” Robbie spots the old leather football his dad used to kick around with him when he was little. It must've been there for ages, yet there's no dust on it. Does dad actually keep it clean?
“We wanted you to know that we will never reject you, no matter what.”
“What’s Miss Wilkinson got to do with that?”
“Miss Wilkinson’s son is gay.”
“I …still don’t see.”
“Well, it’s quite simple, really. She had a homosexual under her roof and decided she couldn’t countenance that, blood or no blood. Great moral fibre she has, Miss Wilkinson. She brought the lad up properly, but without a father in the home, without a moral compass, something like this was bound happened. She needs our support at this difficult time, but we cast her out instead. It was hard for your mother and I as the only ones who opposed the motion to expel her. They said we’re bigots for supporting her bigotry. Leaving aside the gratuitous language, something truly awful has happened to that woman and we’ve just compounded it.”
“What happened to the boy?”
“The homosexual? Who knows?”
Becky walks in, certain she’d left the door open earlier. Her brother is sitting on her bed. “What are you doing in my room?” But he’s not doing anything, she realises. He’s crying. “Robbie?”
“It’s the organist—” he says.
“I know. She kicked her gay son out of the house and they kicked her out of the church in turn.” Becky sits down beside her brother. They put their arms around each other. They sit like that for what seems like ages.
“Dad gave me this whole spiel about how he and mum stood firm against all comers to protect this woman’s job and what happened to her son isn’t even in his mind.”
“Same here. Mum went on and on about how this woman must be suffering without her son, but not one thought for the son, like he’s disqualified himself from entitlement to her infinite compassion. But at the same time, mum’s really cut up about being called a bigot. Can you get your head around that?”
“What freaked me out is that he actually admires that woman for kicking out her son. That’s our dad, Becky. Earlier I was thinking, I wish one of us was gay. That might’ve helped them. But there’s nothing we can do about that.”
“And then you thought, if we were gay, they’d kick us out, and if they didn’t, the best we could hope for is that they’d tolerate us, right?”
“No, I didn’t think that, but you’re right. They assure us they’ll always love us, but that’s bullshit, isn’t it. How can they know?”
“They’re saying that to reassure themselves, which means they doubt it. They can’t be sure whether they’ll be able to love their ‘immoral’ children and they’re shit-scared that they might have to face that. There’s nothing we can do about that either.”
“What if they say something gross next time Yusuf, or your friend Cath, comes to stay over?”
“Oh God, Robbie, don’t even go there.”
“As soon as I finish school, I’m moving out.”
“I can’t wait till then, bro. I’m out of here. I don’t know how yet, but I’m getting out of here, like, already.”
“But you’ve only got three months to go.”
“I fancy Cath.”
That night, Phyllis is at her desk, her pen poised above the paper for some time. She’s puzzled by twenty-three across. Something is incongruous. She puts the pen down. Peter is on the couch with his feet up, his laptop open on his lap.
“I couldn’t do what he’s done,” says Peter, as if finally coming to a long-delayed decision.
“Oh, I forgot to ask Robbie about that noise in his room last night. Did you ask him about it?” says Phyllis.
“How could he do that?”
“Do what? What did he do?”
“Oh, he said he was fed-up with his clock that was forever behind, so he smashed it on the floor.”
“What was wrong with just putting it in the bin?” says Phyllis.
“It was a thoroughly evil thing to do.”
“The granddad,” says Peter.
“Oh. You mean that letter?” Phyllis shudders with a chill running down her spine. “Losing her son, her church and now her father all in the same week. I do hope she’s going to be alright.”
“What a bastard. How could he do something like that to his own child?” says Peter.
“I know,” says Phyllis, joining her husband. “Oh. You’re reading it again.” They both read the letter again.
I’m disappointed in you as a daughter. You’re correct that we have a “shame in the family”, but mistaken about what it is.
Kicking Charlie out of your home simply because he told you he was gay is the real “abomination”. A parent disowning her child is what goes “against nature”.
The only intelligent thing I heard you saying in all this was that “you didn’t raise your son to be gay”. Of course you didn’t. He was born this way and didn’t choose it any more than he being left-handed.
You however, have made a choice of being hurtful, narrow-minded and backward. So, while we are in the business of disowning our children, I think I’ll take this moment to say goodbye to you. I now have a fabulous (as the gays put it) grandson to raise, and I don’t have time for heartless B-word of a daughter.
If you find your heart, give us a call
Each of them issues a long, drawn-out sigh, as if they haven’t breathed at all while reading, and retreats into their own busy silence.
Phyllis gets up and goes back to her desk, slowly and purposively.
“Are you OK, love?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Well, no, not really.”
“What is it, love? Come, sit down again.”
“No, I can’t. I’ve just got to do this.”
“Just let me do this, Peter. We’ll talk about it later. Thank you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” Her smile is wry and doesn’t reassure. Phyllis sits down at her desk, opens her computer and starts to write.
I didn’t want to call because it’s already so late. I wanted you to know that it’s with deep sorrow that Peter and I learn of what happened to you today. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it must be to be so cruelly cast out after everything you’ve already been through with the loss of your son. While our Lord, too, wandered the wilderness on His own, He hadn’t been banished there by His Father, but had gone there to seek Him. You are a daughter in Christ and the Lord does not abandon His children.
We will never abandon you, Christine. Please know that. Exile and isolation can torment the soul and twist the mind. It can make your friends seem like your enemies. I’ve seen it in so many of the refugees I work with. Without family, they are lost. I can’t imagine how I would feel if my own Church were not a safe place for me. Who I would be without the Church? What would I be? I can’t even put a name to it. You are who you are and you should know who you are. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
Christine. Please don’t stay on your own in your house alone by yourself, especially over the next while. Please stay with a friend or get someone to stay with you. You need the compassion of another at this time. Although we weren’t close, please know that you are always welcome to stay with us for as long as you need. I’m sure Peter wouldn’t mind. Please know that you are in our prayers always.
I’ll call you tomorrow (btw please feel free to call at anytime. Our number is on the Committee list, but here it is just in case: 437 2797).
Please know you will always have us. We are your family.
Good night and God bless.
Phyllis (Mrs Morgan) and Peter.
She slowly takes off her glasses and lays them carefully beside the keyboard. By themselves, her hands come together before her lips and nose, thumbs crossed under her chin. She breathes her silent prayer calmly, words of comfort, but senses Peter’s anxiety.
“I’ve just written to her.”
“I know. I’m glad you reached out.”
She remembers how happy it used to make her to please him. Now she’s quietly content, satisfied. She wonders why Christine never married.
“I hope you offered her the spare room for a while. It must be awful being in an empty house at a time like this.”
“You are an angel.”
Gargoyles! She wonders why brushing her teeth should make her think of gargoyles tonight, when that’s never happened before. She supposes it does make one look sort-of gargoylish. The frothing mouth, the contorted face, the raspy, cavernous scraping of hurried chewing. She gargles, spits, slurps, gargles, spits, dries her mouth and is relieved to see herself again. She switches off the light and turns to leave the bathroom, catching a last glimpse in the mirror of her husband’s head suspended in an orb of light from the reading lamp, surrounded by darkness.
Peter moves over to his side of the bed, leaving a warm place for Phyllis.
She crawls in and snuggles up.
“What makes me so angry,” she half-whispers, “Is that the granddad made his irresponsible views public. Isn’t it enough that he’s encouraging such behaviour in his grandson? Of course everyone’s going to talk about it. You know how people are.”
“That’s a cross he’s going to have to bear. I don’t want to think about any of this anymore, darling. Forgive me. Let’s drop the subject now, for good, please. At least we have our children. They’re our life.”
“They are a real blessing. What siblings reach teenage without a cross word passing between them.”
“Don’t you find that a bit strange, though, how they seem so close?”
They sit up quietly, absently holding hands. The week’s events have left them drained.
Peter turns out the light.
The peace and quiet of the night isn’t enough to expel from their minds the incessant replaying of the day that’s been. They listen to the rhythm of each other’s breathing.
“Love?” says Peter, his voice barely audible.
“Yes, Grizzly Bear?” says Phyllis, brought back from somewhere.
“What are we going to do if, God forbid, one of our children decides to be gay, I mean actually, really starts behaving like that?”
Phyllis’s stomach knots. “I don’t know, love,” she sighs. “I honestly don’t know.” She curls further into him. “We will have to search our hearts, Why would the Lord test us?”
“I’m afraid,” whispers Peter, barely audible.
“Oh, darling, so am I.” She curls into him. “We have each other, our family, our Church, we have Jesus, and yet…”
“Is this what persecution feels like?”
They both find themselves crying silently in the dark. They find solace in each other’s closeness.
“Out,” says Phyllis, “The cryptic crossword I got stuck on earlier.”
“Oh,” says Peter, “You had me worried there for a second.”
A distant church bell strikes midnight. Peter anticipates each chime. When was the last time he heard that?
They kiss. They still do.
Acknowledgement: Although this story was triggered by the letter on the Bits and Pieces page, the theme came out of the comments that JC made on the blog in response to my post 'Exemption' from Laws Prohibiting Discrimination against Gay People. Thanks JC.
Times of India
by Anjuli Pandavar
Roshan barges into Padma’s bedroom and slams the door. Padma, his cousin, is reading an Akira manga comic purloined from her brother and always locks the door. She rips off her headphones, clutches the comic to her chest and shrinks back.
“Akira!” shouts Roshan, eyes fixed on the manga.
“You can’t have it,” says Padma, rolling the comic into a tight baton.
“Come on. You know I have to have it,” he says, kicking the leg of the bed.
“I never saw the last one again, you little Capone,” she says. He’s auctioned it to the highest bidder, she’s certain, and now has customers impatient for the next one. Who wouldn’t cough up big money to get their hands on one? Whatever happened to the cute little kid she used to look out for? Just two months of hanging out with the local thugs, and he’s been obnoxious. Since then she’s called him little goonda (ganster), little Mafiaboy, little toughy, which seems the only way she can get back at him these days.
He sneers. Padma’s best friend, Yashwani, says all Roshan ever does is sneer.
Padma says, “See? That’s why you’re not getting it. It’s your attitude. How did you get in here anyway? I locked the door.” Did he pick it?
“Just give me the fucking comic.”
“You’re not getting anything from me anymore, you little twerp.”
“My name is Roshan. Roshan! Not little anything. You’re fucking mouthy for a girl. You know that? Did you get that from that Sikh mother of yours?”
Padma gasps. “You leave my mother out of this!” She sits up even straighter.
“Just give it to me,” says Roshan, lurching forward and grabbing her by the arm.
“Let go of me! You’re hurting me!” A scuffle breaks out on the bed and he wrestles her onto the floor, pinning her, at the same time trying to yank the comic away.
“No!” says Padma, jabbing the rolled-up comic hard at his face.
“You blinded me,” he screams, letting go of her. “Shit. My eye!”
“Good,” she says, “Next time I’ll stab the other eye.”
She frees herself from under him and makes for the door.
“Come back here!”
“Fuck you!” She grabs the doorknob, but pulls it straight off the door. She lands on the floor hitting her head hard, still holding part of the lock in her hand. She can vaguely hear Roshan screaming Fuck me? Fuck me? as she rolls over onto all fours to pick herself up.
“I’ll show you ‘fuck you’, you fucking half-Sikh bitch.” He jumps on her. She hits the floor so hard that she’s winded. He grabs her hair and yanks her head back as she gulps for air.
“You little—!” She gets cut off.
“Stop calling me ‘little!’ Stop fucking calling me ‘little!’” he screams.
He sounds distant to her, hollow, echoey.
* * *
“When a big tree falls, the earth shakes. What’s that mean?” asks Cindy Silberman from the back seat, reading out the yellowed newspaper headline taped to the taxi dashboard. How on earth are they going to pick their way through this traffic gridlock?
“It’s our Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, madam. Those are his words,” explains the driver in clear English. “It was in the Times of India.”
She’s surprised. She picks a visual path through the pack of cars around her, snarling and hooting and lurching forward in short, urgent thrusts. Here and there isolated figures stick out, dodging and darting their way across the street with no other side in sight. “But what do they mean?”
“It means that when a big tree falls, the earth shakes,” he shrugs.
“I see,” says Cindy, puzzled.
The driver notices. “It was when our former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, mother of Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated. There were riots in the country. Many people were killed, and Sikhs as well. She was a big tree and when she fell, the earth shook. That means everybody heard about it. Do you like India?”
A beggar suddenly appears at the driver’s open window. A solo tooth embedded in his leathery face captivates Cindy. Without looking, the driver shoos the beggar away, as one would a mangy dog. He steps back into the path of a truck.
“Fascinating country,” mutters Cindy to herself.
“Thank you. All Indians would be proud to hear you say this,” says the driver, his smile now filling all of the rear-view mirror. “Are you on holiday?”
“Business. I’m doing an investigative piece for the New York Times—” she pauses, considers, “—on rape.”
She looks out the window and sees a woman in jeans and t-shirt dodging her way through the snarling, snapping, traffic. She says firmly, “On rape.”
“Rape, madam? Women are starting to dress without shame and everywhere rape is going up. Thank you for doing that.” He turns his head to nod at her.
Cindy turns on the recorder in her handbag. “So women are being raped and killed for their skirts, is that what you're telling me?”
“Yes, yes, certainly. Good that you are exposing this. Ten years ago, there was no rape in India. Even five years ago. If girls obeyed their parents and stayed at home, none of this would be happening. If they wore traditional clothes, they would not be tempting these men.”
“I’m here about Padma Khanna. What do you think about Padma Khanna?”
“I never heard about Padma Khanna,” he says, frowning. He brings up some phlegm from deep down, loads his throat and spits it out the window, almost hitting a rickshaw.
“Padma Khanna was raped wearing a salwar kameez.” Cindy sits back. She brings the recorder to her mouth and says, “Padma was a big tree. She fell.”
* * *
Nurses, orderlies, doctors, run all over the place. With her fingertip, Padma’s mother caresses the embroidery on her dupatta. It was a gift from Padma. She’s wearing it especially today. She seizes the chance to ask the one person who’s standing still: the nurse who has just unlocked the medicine cabinet and is sorting through her medicines. “How is she doing, nurse? My daughter, Padma Khanna.”
“We are doing all we can, Mrs Khanna. I know it’s hard. The surgeon will come to see you as soon as he’s taken care of her.” She sets aside her medicines and puts her hand on Mrs Khanna’s arm. “You and your husband need a break. There’s a lovely garden just through those doors. It’s good to go for a short walk.”
“Thank you, nurse,” says Padma’s mother and returns to her seat beside her husband, who is still staring blankly. “I can’t help wanting them to stop everything and see to Padma first,” she confides.
“I know,” says he, “I feel the same. But we should take solace from her not being the first. It means she is not the worst case today.” Mr Khanna tugs at the hair on the back of his hand. They wait. They wait.
“Why is Wahe Guru testing us?” asks Mrs Khanna, also half to herself. “What did we do wrong, ji?”
“We must be strong for Padma. We should keep the faith on Wahe Guru. He would turn everything right,” says Mr Khanna. He wants to place his hands on hers. She wants to lean into him. But they remain seated as before.
Yashwani comes sprinting towards them, forcing her way through the clot of emergencies blocking the corridor.
“Where is she? Aunty-Ji?”
Mrs Khanna visibly shrinks. Padma’s father nod’s weakly towards the emergency operating theatre behind her. Yashwani spins around and rushes for the door.
“You can’t go in there, Yashi,” he says. “They’re operating on her.”
“Operating? My God. What happened?”
Mr Khanna stiffens, his face suddenly pallor. He stands up, but is unable to straighten himself. He absently puts his hand on Yashwani’s head and walks off, slowly.
Mrs Khanna regards her husband’s form, noticing that he walks like his father did when he first came to meet her father to propose his son for her. She turns back to find Yashwani in her husband’s seat. She takes the young woman’s hands in hers. “You must never know, my dear sweet Yashi,” she says, “You must never know.”
An orderly walks in and changes the TV channel. It says, Within the last hour, Delhi Police have arrested a youth in connection with the rape of a young woman in the city. Behind them someone says, “Why they must show this kind of shame on the TV?” The victim, a minor who cannot be named for legal reasons, is in a critical condition in hospital. On the screen a bloody manga comic appears. Police said in a statement that they have no firm evidence to link…
Padma’s mother sits up bolt straight. Yashwani turns white. The walls close in.
by Anjuli Pandavar
It isn’t actually true that I’m better off at that school. I don’t know why they insist it’s the right place for me. Miss Wilson must know that I don’t want to be there. Maybe she says nothing coz she fancies dad. Maybe that’s why she calls me ‘my sweet.’ Maybe that’s why mum’s so quiet. Dad’s never invited my other teachers before, but Ms Wilson’s been for dinner three times this year already.
“It’s treating our kids like a political football.” He always says that, but no one’s ever kicked me. Why does he always say that?
“But you’d never see them send their own children to state schools,” says Miss Wilson. Ours must be a state school, I suppose. Maisie says there’s a posh school on the other side behind the big houses. I’ve never seen it but she has coz her mum works near there. Do they think we’re a state school? Maisie knows, I’m positive.
Mum gets up and says, “Excuse me,” and goes to the kitchen. She says ‘excuse me’ a lot when Miss Wilson’s here, but she hasn’t done anything wrong.
“Everything alright, love?” asks dad.
“Let me give you a hand,” offers Miss Wilson.
“I’ll be quite alright, thank you,” says mum.
Miss Wilson follows her to the kitchen anyway.
I look at dad. Dad looks at nothing. Dad looks …strange …bothered. Mum and Miss Wilson are talking, but I can’t hear what they’re saying. I hope they’re not talking about the homework I didn’t do. Why did dad invite Miss Wilson? We should see her at school, not at our house.
“You alright there, darling?” asks dad, even though he’s still looking at nothing.
“Fine,” I say coz I know he’s talking to me coz I’m the only one at the table with him and he’s not talking loud enough for mum and Miss Wilson to hear him.
“How’s your schoolwork?”
“Fine.” The only time he’s asked about my schoolwork was the last time Miss Wilson was here. I wish mum and Miss Wilson would come back. Dad doesn’t ask any more questions. He just looks at nothing.
Mum and Miss Wilson come back from the kitchen with pudding. Oh, that smells yummy. Good. Now I’ll have something to do.
“You’ve been long,” says dad. “Ganging up against me?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” says mum.
Miss Wilson looks serious like when I haven’t done my homework. Oh no. I don’t even know if dad knows, but now he will.
“Go to your room, sweetheart,” says mum.
“But what about my pudding?”
“You can take your pudding up with you.” Wow! Mum’s never allowed me to take pudding to my room. Maybe I’ve done something good. I take my pudding and leave the table.
“Aren’t you going to say ‘goodnight’ to Miss Wilson?” says mum.
“Good night, Miss Wilson.”
“Good night, my angel,” smiles Miss Wilson. She’s so cute.
Mum and dad just say, “Good night, darling,” without giving me a kiss and a cuddle. Maybe they want to tuck into double helpings of pudding. Grown-ups are naughty, too. They just don’t know that I know it.
That was scrumshis. I wish I could have some more. I’d better not. They’d be angry with me and Miss Wilson might remember my homework. The music’s gone quiet. Maybe they’ve gone out and left some pudding in the fridge. Maybe there’s lots of pudding in the fridge. Maybe they’re going to be away for a long time.
I open my bedroom door just a tiny, eensy-weensy little and listen. I can’t hear anything. I listen harder, but still can’t hear anything. I sneak out the door just a bit. Still nothing. At the end of the landing I look out the window. Miss Wilson’s car is still there. Dad’s car …must be in the garage. I go to the top of the stairs as quietly as I can and peep through the bannister.
Miss Wilson and mum are on the sofa holding each other. I can’t see which one needs the cuddle.
Dad’s not there.
by Anjuli Pandavar
"HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAP—"
"Stop! You're driving me insane."
"It's Happy New Year, you idiot."
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