Thursday, December 29, 2005
It’s almost the end of December – the time my brother returns home with tales of the sea and sparse presents. Pretty ones for my mother, practical ones for my father, interesting ones for the help in the house, and something he may have got free with a gallon of green ice-cream for me. The last time I spoke with him, which I think was before I changed jobs, he had hinted something about an embalmed grasshopper. It shall be returned promptly with requisite disgust.
My brother really does belong to another family. We are just too, umm, what’s that word? ‘normal’ for him.
P is strange. By strange, I don’t mean he’s hauntingly sensitive or unfathomably intelligent. He is just weird with the unique ability to be pessimistic about everything. To him, the black hole was perhaps where the Universe was cradled before it waltzed out into the cosmos.
If I’m in a store looking at a stunning blouse, he would whisper, ‘Won’t fit.’ If I’m getting coffee and exchange glances with a handsome gentleman, he’d say, ‘Out of your league.’
In fact, when we were really young, my brother, in collusion with my cousin, had tried to kill me. As children, we’d spend our summers in Delhi with our grandparents and cousins and uncles and aunts and all sorts of family servants. I forget what my grandfather used to do at that time but he stayed in a huge bungalow in Pandara Park. It had a beautiful lawn in the front where my grandma grew marigolds, shoeflowers, and chrysanthemums. And there was a backyard where we had brinjals, chillies and turnips. The backyard also had an idyllic shack where the gardener stayed with his family. We’d see strings of smoke climbing up from his chimney and know that something was cooking. Usually, they were hot, ghee-smeared parathas that the gardener’s wife would serve us with lots of sugar. Of course, if my brother were part of the group, he’d get ten while the rest of us only got two.
Anyway, back to the story where my brother tried to kill me. It was a hot afternoon and we were playing hide-and-seek. Since I was a lazy child, I usually wanted to be the ‘seeker’. That way, I would count to 100, go to the bedroom and sleep while the other kids stayed hidden and silent.
So, things were going according to plan. The rest of my cousins had scuttled in various places, and I could hear shuffling feet behind curtains and under the tables. But far be it from me to go and actually find them out. I skipped off to my grandparents bedroom, snuggled under the covers, and went off to sleep. A moment later, I heard muffled voices. The voices themselves were not muffled, but I was drowsy so I wasn’t too sure whether the people talking were in the room or inside my head.
They were inside the room. My brother and my cousin – both round with tight striped T-shirts that all mothers seem to think look cute on their sons.
‘She’s sleeping,’ my cousin whispers. ‘That’s cheating. How can she do that?’
‘She always does that,’ my bother huffed. ‘She’s so lazy, you know. We should kill her.’
It really didn’t come as a surprise because my brother, since the age of three, had been pretty vocal about his intentions.
‘Kill!!’, my cousin seemed to have a conscience. ‘That would be too much trouble!’ Or maybe not.
‘No, I saw this on T.V. once. You have to press her neck here and count till 30. Then she’ll die.’ I opened my eyes ever so slightly to see what part of the neck I had to keep out of reach. I saw my brother point out something to my cousin, but since they had six chins between the two of them, I’m guessing they couldn’t zero in on the exact location.
‘But before we do it, I’ll hold a pillow on her face, so that she doesn’t scream’, my cousin volunteered.
‘She won’t scream. She’s too lazy’, my brother chuckled.
But I did scream. I leapt out of bed and I screamed loud and guttural and sonic and sonorous and baritone and high-pitched and operrata. Oh, I screamed. My brothers were so scared that they held on to each other tightly, with my cousin giving strong indication that a urinal was most necessary then.
They were grounded for the rest of the holidays. They’d look out of the bedroom windows and see a lazy girl having parathas with sugar in the garden. The girl would look up at those fiends and very tellingly stroke her neck and go back to her food. Ah! That was nice.
Things have changed since then. Today, my cousin and my brother don’t mind terribly if I live.
Now, I’m very fond of babies. I love to tickle their chin and hold them and rock them and tweak their button noses and uncurl their tiny fingers. What I would love to have in my home someday is a wall full of pictures of babies from all over the world. It’ll actually be like this – I would travel to all these places and whenever I see a baby who takes a shine to me, I’d click a snap with him or her…in black and white. Then I’d blow up all these photos and frame them in the parlor.
But because I haven’t traveled much in a long, long time, I thought I’d ask my brother to get me pictures of babies instead, since he’s got a such a head start in traveling the globe. Turns out he has as much joy in his heart as a coir bathmat.
A few months back, he had been to Rome, Pyrus, Shanghai, Seoul, and some other places I don’t remember. Everytime he’d call up from these jaunts, I’d ask him, ‘So, how are the babies there?’
And each time he’d reply with that hang-dog tone, ‘Babies are the same everywhere – bald and cranky.’
However, the only place he did find the babies remarkable was China. He was rather taken in by these little munchkins in their prams listening to MP3s and bobbing their smooth heads up and down. I really wanted to hold a Chinese baby then and was just about to say that to brother when the conversation had changed. I was now being informed about how the world doesn’t give enough credit to the Chinese for the way they cook pork. Of course. Why must we bother with children when there are a hundred different ways to cure pork and serve them? Really, the world must get its priorities right.
One night, he called me – not my mother or father or the cook, but me, directly, on my cell.
‘You like babies, don’t you?’, he growled.
And because it was 2:00 a.m. and all I saw was ‘0000’ on my mobile screen, I really thought it was a threatening call meant for someone else.
‘Yes, but…’, I began.
‘Well, let me tell you what happened to me today!’, he carried on gruffly. And my bro’s voice over the phone is like a bear with a sore throat. You can’t mistake it for anything human, so I realized it was him.
Now, the incident that had spurred brother to call me directly, (something that has never known to happen unless my brother is out of money), happened in some place in Korea and involved a child.
My brother had got off duty and was walking through the marketplace and sampling some of the street fares. With him, sampling usually takes two portions, but that’s besides the point. He chanced upon a stall that was cooking shrimps, squids and assorted seafood in a Korean wine and serving them in a flambé. So my brother stopped there and ordered a platter of fried fish. Now, next to him stood a little Korean boy with his mother. He was looking at my brother keenly, maybe because of his dorky glasses. (The only reason my brother thinks he looks good in them is because some lady in Marseilles told him that. Ma did point out that English is not their first language so maybe they mistook ‘good’ for ‘stupid’ but my brother refused to listen.)
So, my brother gets the platter and is briefly spell-bound by what he sees in the next stall – all kinds of poultry served grilled and roasted! So he puts down his plate and fixes his glasses to see if he can read the menu. In the meantime, the little Korean boy has taken his plate and is weaving his way through the crowd with his mother.
Now, at all times, there is very little distance between my brother and his food; and nothing comes between them. So, brother dashes after the kid, quite unnecessarily because the child is only a few steps ahead, and bars his way, glaring at him.
Irrespective of nationality, I think a 24 year old glaring at a 5 year old is pretty silly.
The mother, on the other hand, smiles sweetly at my brother and says, ‘You? India?’
My brother nods eagerly and clarifies, pointing at the plate, ‘Me India. India like fish.’ Not for him the sentimental patriotism – ‘India like fish’ it seems. How can people talk like that and not want the earth to swallow them whole? But I think the mother of the kid mistook my brother’s plea to be an explanation of why he gifted the food to her child. So she patted his shoulder, got her kid to wave, and went away.
‘He went away with my food, Chinky! That Korean brat! I saw him…he was picking up my shrimps and eating them one by one,’ he ranted. But I think the memory was too painful for him. His voice was getting choked.
‘Come on, no big deal…it was only food,’ I explain, knowing fully well that to my brother, ‘only’ and ‘food’ do not exist in the same sentence. I could sense that he was deeply disturbed now – after all, forsaken by family.
‘You see the world Chinky, and you you want to trust people..but then, you see kids, you know. You can never trust them with food.’
Oh well, looks like I’ll need to get the kiddie pictures for the wall myself.