There were a few hours of the day that Mother had allocated purely as her own, for her own. No one was allowed to disturb her then. Not Magan or Kanak or the gardener who might want his monthly dues. Between the hours of two and four in the afternoon, her bedroom door would remain shut. She’d turn on Bengali news for half an hour, waiting for the heaviness of the afternoon to descend.
I’d return home at three to find the crack beneath her door disappeared by darkness, and I would retire to my own room, where I could unravel in privacy—I’d write a letter to a pen pal, or make up a story for my dolls.
At precisely four, or sometimes a quarter past—she would tell whoever would bring her tea how she had overslept by mistake—the light beneath her door came back on, and I could imagine the whole universe in there—the television, the drapes, the tumbler and glasses, and unpacked suitcases from my father’s many rushed trips—all having awoken at once.
Some days, she would shower after her tea, put on a fresh sari, always of a somber print and color, and head down the stairs to her car. Her heels scuffed against the carpet on the staircase importantly. If she had woken up in time, she might peer into my room and tell me she had a meeting or an event to attend.
Time in my house was always divided into two parts—when my parents were home and all the ceiling lights were on and so was the television and all the servants scattered here and there on errands; and when my parents were away at work, when everything including the sounds was switched off and for a brief moment, the house would seem mine.
It was always on those days, at precisely the time my mother’s car had rolled out of the garage and I was ready to feel alive, that finally, Aunt B would arrive.
Aunt B wasn’t really my aunt. She was my mother’s aunt. My grandmother’s sister. But, being younger than my mother, she was too young to be called a grand aunt and possibly for not finding an adequate salutation, I called her “aunt” as well. Come to think of it, everyone I knew did.
Aunt B was a squat woman, and her most prominent feature was her thick lips that were always painted dark burgundy as though they had been charred by the summer sun. Her hair was always pinned in an eloquent bun at the base of her neck. She never looked up as she hitched her sari almost to her knees and ascended the staircase to our living room with a shaky precision as though she were wading water.
To compliment her features, she had a voice that sounded as though she were hitching up her tree stump of a nose, as she did her sari, to squeeze out decibels. But it wasn’t so much the tone as the words themselves which grated in me.
“Is your Mum-mum at home?” she would ask, almost knowing what the answer would be.
Aunt B came every week, at the exact same time, into a living room taken over by evening’s shadows. Yet she never relented. She came with a blatant hope, a desperateness, at the dark end of daylight, only to turn around disappointed and sadly make her way back—to once again endure her own life.
Some days, she would ask for tea before she heaved her stoutness back to Mayfair Road, the street parallel to us, connected by a narrow lane. It was no more than a five-minute walk back to her building—a large white multistory that looked as grim as a government school. It was across the road from the general store where I would often go to buy chocolates and later cigarettes, and each time I would be wary of the possibility of bumping into her.
I suppose, though, she needed the rest before she dragged her body through the lonely journey back. Perhaps she was wondering which relative’s house to go to next, whose printed sofa to sip tea on. Her plump lips, now deflated, still held on to their smile.
At first, I would sit on the armrest of the green fabric sofa, which despite many reupholsterings had remained the same color, and politely answer Aunt B’s questions with one-word answers.
“School is fine?”
“Do you know when your mother will be back?”
Aunt B’s face was aglow with futile effervescence. You could see her almost willing me to divulge some information when she inquired of my mother.
This obscene optimism perched on her lips—swollen with expectation—made me more adamant not to give in. So I neither offered her biscuits nor inquired about her daughter D, and I was annoyed that Magan served her tea in the pretty floral pot instead of offering her a single cup. After a few minutes I would excuse myself and go back to my room. Before I turned the hallway’s corner, I could see the back of her bun held delicately with pins and clips to form whatever semblance of dignity that she could muster.
Sometimes it would be a good half an hour before I heard her footsteps on the staircase again. Once in a while, if she was really lucky, my mother would return. Then they gossiped about relatives, “But you don’t know, Chini.” She would sing the songs of her grief while my mother patiently listened—to her sorrows, and the sorrows of all their other relations. Then, in her curt, precise words, my mother would hand out consolations, her little favors.
Aunt B would say, “I knew you’d know what to do.”
Sometimes, my mother made the trip five minutes over to Mayfair Road herself. Once a year, when she would clean out her closets, she’d keep piles of saris on different parts of the bed and later tell Aunt B, “This yellow would look so good on you, I set it aside.”
My mother never spoke of her work with the Ladies Study Group or the Citizens Action Forum with Aunt B. Nor of my father’s new ventures. It was as though she brushed aside her essential self to make time for her poorer relative. A form of entertainment—easy and mindless—where she didn’t really have to give too much of her person. A real-life daytime soap.