The coconut leaves glint under a bald moon. Through my barred window, I count them one by one. I won't fall asleep tonight. Stray mosquitoes buzz inside my net, wailing for blood. My breasts are beginning to ache.
Menoka is prattling in my father's room. She is my father's second wife. Often, instead of sleeping, she talks nonsense to my father, the "daktar" of herbal medicine. Father says very little that I can hear. Nor can I quite make out what Menoka says. Her voice trembles, moans, and cackles. I wish I could bang on their door and silence her.
The daktar specializes in rejuvenation, doling out roots and pills to rickshaw pullers and pushcart vendors. He also owns a bike shop on Dewan Road. Sudorshon, Menoka's younger brother, manages the bike shop for him.
The night outside my window has grown very still. A mist has closed in, stopping the breeze. Ghosts move within this scattered light: my mother's ghost, and the ghost of poor Chabuk, who used to greet me with an asthmatic laugh. A thin, dark man in his fifties, he lived in a bamboo flat in front of our brick building. That was about four years ago.
"O Kusum," he'd say, making wheezing noises. "Don't play all day! You're not a little girl anymore! Go read your Macbeth!"
A delivery man for a College Bookstore, he knew the titles students wanted. The joke never failed to tickle him. Then one night a thud outside my window woke me. People from the bamboo flats were screaming. I looked out and saw Chabuk's body sprawled under my father's coconut tree. The coconuts were ripe, worth good money.
The following day, as four neighbors lifted his white-wrapped body onto a small cot to carry him to a cremation ground, I said farewell to Chabuk. His half-closed eyes seemed to wink at me: "Go read your Macbeth!"
But I will not read Macbeth. Only last year, though it seems like ages ago, I spent a few weeks at the city college here. I had no idea what the teachers were saying. Chapman's Homer...the Aryan invasion... concomitant variation... all jumbled up in my head. I wanted no part of it, wishing only to go live in the village where my mother lived, to do the simple house chores for her -- to pluck flowers for her altar, to water her vegetable garden. I wanted to bask and revel in the village night's silence, made deeper by intermittent crickets.
But before I could go, the news of my mother's death came. A domestic accident, my father told me. She caught fire while lighting a kerosene lamp. But he didn't say what I heard later from other people, that the flames rose close to the roof of the open veranda.
I wake up from a nightmare in which Sudorshon brandishes a butcher knife at my father. From behind his steel-rimmed glasses, my father's eyes bulge. "I need a change of wife," he moans. Sudorshon lunges at him. I intercede but make Sudorshon very angry. He takes off his clothes and turns purple and green. This dream puzzles me.
I call Sudorshon "mama" because he is, technically, my maternal uncle. Also "Sudu-mama" has a nicer, more comforting sound than "Sudorshon Babu." Every afternoon he visits us and eats a late meal before going back to the bike shop. He has a sweet smile, a soft voice, and shoulder-long hair that he ties up in a top-knot. He looks like a Japanese doll. Why would I dream such a dream about Sudorshon?
Beside me in the bed is four-year-old Sukhi, Menoka's daughter. She has her mother's light skin and big round eyes, eyes that often look frightened. She also has a missing epiglottis, poor thing. Everything she says comes out a nasal whine. I am "nusum." She is "nusi." She sleeps peacefully. Looking at her, I remember the days when I jumped rope until sweat rolled along my temples.
"Sukhi!" Menoka yells from the kitchen.
Sukhi wakes up with a start and looks at me. Then without saying anything she rolls out of the bed. I close my eyes and stay in bed a while longer. But it's bright outside, at least nine. I get up and go to the bathroom.
The bathroom mirror reflects a face I vaguely know. Red eyes in a sullen face and pale blotchy skin. I splash my eyes with cold water. Red eyes, Menoka says, are a sign of bad character.
"So the maharani's up!" Menoka yells at me. She calls me maharani, the great queen, when she is angry. She's thirty and beautiful. Her curves look sharp to me through her tightly wrapped sari. She sees me from the kitchen where she is bent over the shelves. Sukhi is crouched on the floor, eating something from a bowl. I walk to the kitchen.
"Mahanani," says Sukhi, imitating her mother and giggling. "Mahanani, mahanani."
"I am didi," I tell Sukhi. "Don't call me maharani."
This makes Menoka sizzle like a slice of eggplant in oil. Twisting her lips, she hurls words at me.
"Before you go preening yourself, my dear, what do you do to deserve any respect in this house? Do you help with the housework? Do you go to school? Aren't you ashamed to just eat and sleep, eat and laze?"
She pauses for breath, looks at me up and down, and says, "Why, not even a dog will sniff you, you ugly bitch..."
"Stop it, stop it," I cry, almost in tears. "You won't dare say such things in front of my father."
"Your father went to work early this morning," Menoka says. "What do you care about your father? You'll wear him out until he dies. You'll wear out the patience of a saint."
"For God's sake," I say, laughing. "He is no saint."
But Menoka looks grave, and I know it's going to be another day on the roof for me.
The roof is my escape. Father wants to build two more stories on top of the existing two. So the roof is now a construction site with concrete pillars, iron grids, bricks, planks, and a workman's cabin on one side. The work being on hold until the dry days of winter, nobody goes up there but me. I take the half-built staircase that will connect all the floors but now ends halfway between floor two and the roof, the eventual floor three.
I put a chair on the last step of the stairway and clamber up to the roof from the chair. The October wind blows softly on my face. Looking north, I see the railway hills and their scattered bungalows, dreaming under a soft bright sun. Mogaltully road is abuzz with rickshaw pullers and hawkers, but no one can see me if I lie down.
I don't want to be seen because of Badal, an oily bastard who lives in one of the bamboo flats. Whenever he can, he gives me bold filthy looks. Sometimes he even comes up to the last step of the staircase, but he stops there. I face the other way pretending sleep.
I take a patched quilt that I leave in the work cabin and spread it on a clear area, surrounded by the debris of construction. On my back, I look at the coconut tree, the same one rising alongside my room below. The smooth, green coconuts are a few feet above the roof line. They look firm, like young breasts. Breasts are the only part of me I like. I imagine the taste of milk in them and look up to the sky. The October clouds are white and ponderous.
A feeling of emptiness grows and pulls me down firmly. I turn on my stomach and think of the loathsomeness of food; how, once ingested, it goes sliding down and turns into various wastes. I feel no hunger after a while and stay prone till I fall asleep.
I dream of going into the bathroom for a drink of water. Fat, bloody mosquitoes hover all around me. I get out of the bathroom and run outdoors. The roads are empty, yet I hear people running and shouting at each other. Someone seems to be calling me, "Kusum, Kusum, Kusum." But I don't see him. I try to scream and wake up.
Sudorshon is looking down at me with a tiffin carrier in his right hand.
"Sudu-mama!" I rub my eyes.
"You need to eat," he says.
He puts the tiffin-carrier down near me and stands with his hands behind his back, staring at the hills.
"Won't you sit down?" I say.
I open the tiffin-carrier. Rice, dal, cauliflower and okra neatly stacked in two tiers. Water in a glass on the top tier. I take a sip of water and begin to eat.
Sudorshon sits down beside me. This is the third time he has brought me food.
"Sudu-mama," I say, "why do you do this? I don't really want to eat."
"Look," he says, "I don't know what's going on between you and Menoka, but you shouldn't starve yourself."
"Goodness, it isn't Menoka," I say, pushing the tiffin carrier aside. "Besides, I'm saving the daktar some money."
"Don't give me that crap."
I am startled by his sharpness. He has never talked to me like that.
After a pause, I say, "Sudu-mama, I dreamed about you this morning." He says nothing.
"Don't you want to know what I dreamed? You were purple and green and quite funny."
He smiles and shakes his head.
"You were angry too, and naked."
"And you were trying to stab my father."
"Lots of people would like to stab your father," he says. "And how about you? Do you like your father?"
"I guess I do."
"You guess you do," he says. "What do you do here on the roof anyway?"
"I look at the coconut tree, the hills, and the clouds," I say. "Don't you like to look at them?"
"I don't have the time."
Sudorshon gets up and paces back and forth, looking at people and at the hills. Then he comes back to me, seeming a little lost. I take his right hand and pull him gently toward me.
"Sudu-mama, I like you," I say.
"I like you too, Kusum," he says.
"Will you take me out of here, Sudu-mama?"
"What do you mean?" he says, his face turning red.
"I mean I could go someplace with you, out of here."
He takes his hand away from me and shakes his head slowly.
"You don't know what you're saying, Kusum," he says. "I work for your father. Where can I take you?"
"I don't care. Anywhere!"
"Anywhere is not a place. Anyway, I've got to go now."
But before he turns away from me, I get up and block his way.
"Do something," I say. "Do something for me before you leave, you bloody coward."
"Kusum, for God's sake," he says in a low voice, "why are you like this? What do you want me to do?"
"Why, jump off the roof, climb a tree, get me a coconut."
Sudorshon looks at me with his mouth open. Then he bends forward and shakes, laughing helplessly.
"You're funny ha..ha..ha. God you're funny. Ha, ha..."
I look at him surprised. I don't see anything funny, and wait for him to stop.
He does, but his eyes still glint. He goes to the cement- mixing area, picks up a sturdy plank and slides it toward the coconut tree, about four feet from the ledge. One end of the plank touches the ribbed tree trunk.
"Kusum," he says, "stand on it until I get up there. I need just one quick step in the middle."
"Sudu-mama!" I say, my heart pounding, and images of Chabuk's half-closed eyes flashing through my mind.
"Come on, I was a country boy," he says. "I spent the better part of my life climbing trees like a squirrel."
I go up to him where he stands and lightly hold him in my arms. "Please, please, don't."
Sudorshon takes my hands and gently pushes me up on the plank. "Now, don't worry," he says. "It's a long plank. A little weight on your side will keep it grounded. Just keep one foot on it firm."
I do as I am told, suddenly realizing he really means it and won't listen to any protest. I watch in amazement as Sudorshon runs toward the tree--one step, two--and jumps. The plank wobbles under my right foot, then flies up. I step back, barely avoiding getting hit in the chin. I see the plank trembling as it falls off the roof. But Sudorshon is safe! He lands against the trunk with his arms around it. His legs folded at the knees, his bare feet press on to the trunk as braces. He grimaces in pain and then begins a slow climb. This Tarzan-like feat must have bruised his arms.
Now people come out of the bamboo flats to look at Sudorshon. That oily bastard Badal comes out and sees me on the roof.
"Sudorshon babu," Badal yells, "get me a good juicy one too. Ah, green coconut, so sweet." He makes a slurping noise with his tongue.
"I'd like to drop one on your head," Sudorshon says.
Then Menoka comes out and begins to choke. "Suduuu." Her voice at once rises and fades. "Suduuu..."
"I'll be down in a minute," says Sudorshon.
I walk away from this strange scene to the other end of the roof. The October wind is getting a chill. The hills are streaked with orange. Still ponderous, the clouds are daubed with blood. It's time for me to go down.