I was six years old, the first time I ever held a baby. It was a rainy, noisy afternoon. I danced barefoot across the smooth tiles of my parents’ living room. A radio played film songs. It was the eighties, so my hair was in a side ponytail that swayed rhythmically to the sound of Lata Mangeshkar’s chaste yet sex-kitten-like voice. Over the song, I could hear my mother screaming. Apparently, our high-caste, vegetarian cook, the one we had before my beloved Shanta Bai arrived, had refused another delivery from our butcher.
‘In this house, we eat meat!’ I heard my mother scream from the kitchen.
The doorbell rang. Then it rang again. I turned off the radio, still sashaying to the music in my head. I pulled the heavy front door open with all my might to find … no one. I shrugged and was about to let it swing shut, when a small noise made me look in the direction of my feet. An infant, naked except for a black thread tied around his swollen belly, lay on a dirty cloth, cycling his legs.
‘Ma! There’s another one today!’ I yelled into the house.
‘Bring it inside,’ came the curt reply.
A children’s home that my mother ran from the building opposite our bungalow had the depressing distinction of the lowest infant deaths of any orphanage in Kamalpur. As a result, people had started abandoning babies at our doorstep. At one point, it got so bad, Lily Mama stationed a chowkidar at each gate, with instructions not to let anyone holding a baby enter. As a result, a business associate of Jeh’s, whom he’d invited over for dinner one night, became furious and started shouting where he stood outside on the street, because they would not let his wife, holding his infant son, enter.
I lifted the baby up the way I’d seen my mother do it, supporting his head, like a lotus on a thin stem. The rain had receded to a drizzle. I felt it on the back of my neck. The child’s gaunt face was a skull painted the colour of flesh. He weighed as much as a bundle of twigs. He opened his lips and turned, hoping to find a breast. Disappointed, he let out a wail. I carried him back into the kitchen.
‘Look, Mama,’ I said. ‘So tiny!’ I waited for my mother to look at me. I wanted her to say that I was holding the baby the right way, that I was a clever, responsible girl. The orphan children called her ‘Asha Mai’. They’d gather around her like chicks around a hen, chirping, ‘Asha Mai! Look at this picture I made! Look how tall I am now!’ My mother, in her cotton kurta and oversized sunglasses, would smile and say, ‘Very good, Mira. Well done, Govind. I’m so proud of you,’ as she ushered them all back inside. How jealous I felt of them with my mother, who’d never said she was proud of me.
‘You crazy woman!’ Apparently, my mother was too busy squabbling with our cook to pay attention to me. ‘People who eat meat are not rakshasas. You’re educated, goddamn it! Act like it!’
The cook threw down her frilly, turmeric-stained apron and said that Asha calling her crazy was the limit. She quit. I took the news with glee. I hated her watery dal and sickly bhindi fry. There’d be no dinner ready when Jeh came home tonight. He’d find my mother in a snit, and take us out for dinner to the Gymkhana Club, where he’d order a whisky for himself, a vodka for my mom, and listen to me chatter while I sipped Thums Up through the gap between my front teeth.
‘Here. Please, Mama,’ I said and pushed the baby into her arms. ‘I think he’s wet himself.’
My mother took the infant to the window and held him up to the watery light. Turning him this way and that, she inspected his pointy little body. ‘Hmm, malnourished. Probably dysentery,’ she said. She pulled off his rough diaper cloth and gave him back to me. ‘Hold him a little while longer. I still need to sort this stupid woman out.’ She turned around to face the sulky, frowning cook.
‘But Ma!’ I protested as the naked baby was thrust back into my arms. My mother resumed fighting with the cook, barring her from leaving by standing in the doorway. As I watched them argue, I felt something warm and foul run over my hands. The baby, freed of his diaper, had pooped a watery mess. Vomit pushed up against the back of my throat. I fought an urge to toss the child out the window.
‘Those are pretty earrings,’ Ammu said.
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I swiped them from my mom’s jewellery box.’
‘How’s your mom?’ Ammu asked. ‘I don’t see her around tonight.’
‘She’s … not feeling well,’ I said, making quotation marks in the air.
‘Oh,’ Ammu said, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be,’ I said.
‘Nothing serious, I hope?’ Ammu prodded further.
‘The truth? She was too drunk to leave the house,’ I said, shrugging. ‘She drinks all day, these days. She’s anxious, depressed, etc. Nothing new.’
‘Poor Asha Aunty. She used to be such fun when I came over to your house as a kid,’ Ammu said. ‘Remember the time we carried all that mud through your living room,’ she blew a plume of smoke and laughed, ‘to make a garden on your balcony.’
‘It was a disaster,’ I said, recalling that day. ‘Mud all over the floors and on the curtains.’
‘Your mom wasn’t even angry!’ Ammu smiled. ‘She yelled for the gardener to come upstairs, and he helped us make a little thing with bricks in which we could put the mud and some seeds. My mom would’ve had a meltdown.’ She held her tongue between her teeth. ‘I used to think of your house as Neverland. It was a place where we never got into trouble.’
‘If you caught her on a good day, she could be amazing,’ I conceded, grinning at the memory.
It was true. On the days when Asha’s anger disappeared for a few hours, she transformed into the kind of mother one reads about in stories. She taught me how to play Scrabble, would read to me, we’d go to the fish market and she’d make the pomfrets move their mouths and pretend to sing. She had the most beautiful voice, like a crystal glass struck with a spoon. But her anger would always return. One mother sang me to sleep, while the other woke me up with her screams. After she’d hit me, her gold bangles clinking to keep time, I’d run crying to a mirror to see if I’d changed, if the beating had registered and I was more like the children Asha loved – the ones in her orphanage.
‘Have you ever thought about taking her to a psychiatrist?’ Ammu asked. ‘Or rehab?’
‘She won’t get help.’ I stared at my feet. My sandals glittered prettily in the dark. ‘She doesn’t trust anyone. Not even us. Perhaps Dad and I should see a psychiatrist. My mother certainly thinks so. She seems to blame us for everything.’
‘Why does she blame you guys?’ Ammu frowned. ‘And what for, exactly?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, taking a big sip of my drink. ‘Once, when I was really young, she and my dad had this massive fight. And it was because I … I pushed her. I mean, I was eight and lost my temper.’
‘You’re a good person, Noomi,’ Ammu said, putting a hand, cool and dry, on my shoulder. ‘I know how hard it’s been for your family. Everyone knows. All anyone ever says about your dad is what a good heart he has. How patient he is.’
‘Oh, and my mom can’t stop talking about the fact that,’ I paused, tilting my glass up to finish my drink, ‘my dad hasn’t touched her, you know, sexually, in fifteen years.’
Ammu took my hand. ‘These aren’t your problems. Have you ever thought of moving out?’
‘Where would I go?’ I said blearily. ‘And what would I do?’
‘What do you want to do?’
‘It’s not what I want to do, as much as who I want to be,’ I muttered. ‘Someone who isn’t written off. Like you. Or even like Sheila Sehgal, Lily Mama, Binny. I want to … matter. I want to be,’ I rolled my empty glass between my palms, thinking, ‘the most important person in someone’s life. Anyone’s.’
‘You could move somewhere new,’ Ammu offered. ‘A fresh start. No one about to tell you who you are or what you’re worth.’ She smiled, plucked the cigarette from my fingers and took a drag. She stood holding the cigarette up and away from her sari, which shimmered like ripples in dark water. There was a flash at her wrist. I realized she was wearing a bracelet I’d given her many years ago – a gold circlet with lion heads at its two ends. I took back the cigarette, then slipped a nail under the gold band.
‘I can’t believe you’ve kept this all these years,’ I said. ‘I thought you hated me.’
‘I was an idiot,’ Ammu said. ‘I blamed you for things that weren’t your fault.’
‘Why didn’t you reach out?’ I slurred. Reesh out. ‘All these years?’
‘I was afraid,’ Ammu said, letting go of my hand. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Afraid? Of what?’ I asked, studying the lines notched into her forehead.
‘Afraid of looking you in the eye, once I understood what my brother had done to you.’
Excerpted with permission from Naheed Phiroze Patel's A Mirror Made of Rain published by HarperCollins India.