Inheritance (Indira Ganesan) Online - Indira Ganesan

One

My mother awoke in the holy hour before dawn, rumple-eyed and irritable. From the branches of the coral jasmine tree, a night-flowering wonder, small orange-centered blossoms fell to the ground in slow rhythms outside her window. She let a comb creep through her hair, with her fingertips touched sandalwood oil to her throat, between her breasts, her eyes closed in dreams. Perhaps she thought of marrying again. My mother wore a sari of pale yellow, and I imagined she felt she could write a novel then and there. Didn’t she have forty-six years of life to tell?

But in came my grandmother, scattering my mother’s thoughts away, shuffling on feet that had turned as hard as stone. Trumpeting words like an elephant, she asked my mother, “Have you brushed your teeth yet? Do you want your coffee now?” My mother, caught in her dreams, caught with her hand on her breast, nodded yes. The house was awake. The maids began to wash the dishes from the night before, and the cook yelled at them while cutting vegetables. The orange vendors and tomato sellers were already at the doorstep, calling out their wares. In the midst of this morning chaos, it was my mother who was labeled the maddest. She was the strange one, the daughter gone wrong, the bad woman who refused to go to temple, who needed her own mother to fetch her morning coffee, who would not wear widow-white. “Why should I wear white if I still have fifty years more of my life to live?” she had asked when her first husband died, refusing to look at my grandmother’s face.

I imagined my mother in the mornings like this, imagined her thoughts, her longings. She did not speak to me. When I was six, and arrived at my grandmother’s house on the island of Pi, dusty and yet presentable after a sultry train and boat journey from India, only my grandmother and Great-uncle Raj were at the table set for the midday meal. Even before I saw her bold-patterned sari and unbound hair, I knew my mother was watching me, suspicious, from a corner. For days we edged past each other. She spoke no words to me.

When I turned fifteen, I came to my grandmother’s house for a long stay, this time to rest, to get over a dragging spell of bronchitis. I had been given four months leave from my pre-university. My life was filled with so much illness that I had become a kind of heroine for my younger cousins. (“This is Sonil,” they told their friends. “She gets a lot of diseases.”) There were hardly two days apart when I was not sick. It was when the huskiness in my voice was lifting, and my chest no longer ached as if a tiger were walking about inside, that my grandmother suggested I spend the summer months at her home, away from the infected cities.

“The island air is so good—she’ll recover well,” wrote my grandmother to my guardian aunts in Madras.

“And Lakshmi, what about Lakshmi? Has she recovered as well?” whispered my aunts on the phone.

Lakshmi: that name had been whispered, lingered over in soft tones in my undetected presence for years. My mother, Lakshmi, who hadn’t seen me in nine years. Only from the merest shreds of conversation had I gathered bits of my mother’s story. They would not tell me the whole truth, so I became an eavesdropper, not knowing they shielded me from whatever harm could be imparted in words. It would be unthinkable, they said, to live with my mother. Only bad would come of it, they thought. What are they afraid of? Would she spit at me, scream at me, shake me as enraged madwomen do in the movies? Or was it simply the association they feared, that her strange ways would rub off on me, the way certain flowers left gold dust on my fingers? But despite the protests, my grandmother, who can wear a face as strong as any god’s, had her way.

So I went to Pi, to spend a summer full of change and wonder. It was a summer of attuned perceptions, a turnover, a prelude to adulthood; even now, I have not fully recovered from it. It was a summer of awakening. My grandmother’s house was different from my home in Madras. Here, I could walk under the mango trees in a place that lacked only a waterfall to make it a kind of paradise. In the mornings, tiny