Ants on the Windowsill*
Probably today, she thought, the child will finally topple over and fall in the water. It would die and nobody would notice; nobody ever noticed what the child did by itself all day. It was a girl, she thought, although she couldn’t be sure. Later they would pull her out of water, wet and floppy, like an old doll.
As she watched from the window, the child started crawling, wobbling on its thin arms and legs like everyday. Slowly it reached the edge of the pit and peered into the water. It never made any noise, never cried like other babies left by themselves. Maybe it hadn’t learnt to speak yet; only when you learn to talk can you realize that you are lonely. But could it think? She held her breath. The child was tottering at the edge of the pit, looking at its reflection rippling in water; it did this everyday.
It looked completely alone in the backyard, absorbed in the show reflected in the water. Its parents, with other labourers, were repairing Daddy’s garage at the back of the house. Some of them occasionally came to the pit to fetch water, mix cement, but they didn’t play with the child, or even speak to it.
It was moving its lips now, she saw, saying something to its reflection; learning to speak its first words. Suddenly she knew that it would never fall in the water and die. It would go with its parents from one place to another; it would wobble to the edges of all the water pits in the world and speak to its reflections, and so become a big girl one day.
‘Minny, your milk!’
She had heard mother’s shout from the kitchen, but she did not get up. She pulled out the knitting needle from inside the plaster on her leg; it had remained there after she had got tired of scratching. Mother could not bear to see her poking the needle inside the plaster. She scratched and scratched when she was alone at her window; she even kept the needle pushed deep inside the plaster so that nobody could see it.
With the needle she flicked off some big ants from the windowsill and got up; walked all over the house slowly, clumping her plastered leg, and reached the kitchen in a roundabout way, reading a comic as if she had come to take milk on her own, not on mother’s calling. For a week she had been reading comics all day, not only because she didn’t have to go to school, but also to avoid spending too much time with mother.
‘I called you long back; your milk is getting cold’.
‘I didn’t hear.’
She picked up her glass and moved out of the kitchen, reading the comic kept open in one hand.
‘You should drink it here in the kitchen. Otherwise, you will spill it.’
She was near her window already; she pretended she hadn’t heard. She looked out to see the baby. It had moved away from the pit, and was toiling with its father’s pugree which was also its bed for the day, weaving in and out of the loosened coils. She knew that it would soon fall asleep, tangled in the bands of cloth.
She heard mother singing in the kitchen; she could not make out whether it was a sad song or a happy song. Having finished the milk she did not want to return to kitchen to keep the glass; her plaster was a good excuse. She upturned the glass on the windowsill, and watched ants slowly gather around the milk drops. The big shiny ants were pushing smaller ones away, but they were faster; they turned away when pushed, but made a swift wide arc on the windowsill and returned to the feast. She spread out the milk drops, using the knitting needle, so that she could see more ants feeding and fighting.
Mother had come into the room but she did not turn round. Mother came to the window, picked up the glass and for some time watched her flicking off ants with the needle, one by one. Mother looked out and watched the child playing with its pugree. She ruffled Minny`s hair softly.
‘You should sleep now Minny, and also take your medicine.’
She didn’t say anything, and remained staring out of the window, her chin resting on her elbows sweaty on the window frame. Mother moved about the room for some time, tidying things, and went back. She was smelling of masala, sweat, and heat of the kitchen. Minny knew that she had wanted to stay longer and talk to her, instead of just tidying tings. She had wanted to shrink back from her mother’s touch, but of course she didn’t do it.
Actually since the night she had fallen and broken her ankle, a week back, she has been feeling shy of mother, as if she was not her own mother but some new auntie. Though everyone had made great fuss over her, taken her to hospital for putting on and checking the plaster, given her new comics and chocolate, and had been extra nice, she had begun to remain silent even when spoken to; she pretended to be absorbed in her comics or in TV. Even when Daddy took her for drives in the car, she did not laugh and shout at pedestrians, or demand ice-cream. Daddy laughed a lot and joked with her for being so serious.
‘Don’t worry Minny, we’ll get you a new leg from America; much better than this old one.’ Or, ‘Okay, we’ll get you two; you can keep the old ones as spare, for a rainy day’.
She smiled politely because he was trying hard to make her laugh.
It had been raining that day, when she had broken her ankle. Actually that night.
It must have been after nine, she did not know; it was quite dark and father had come back late. It was the only day when she had had no dinner. She had known since the evening that mother had not wanted her to have dinner at eight like everyday. She had given her cakes and talked about school, about why she didn’t like Mrs. Handa, her English teacher, about whether the water cooler at school had been repaired, about why Mandira had stopped coming to their house.
Minny didn’t know why Mandira had stopped coming; and she was her good friend although not her best friend. When she had gone yesterday to Mandira’s house to return her jigsaw puzzle, her mother had been very ‘nice’ to her; she had smiled too much and told her that Mandira was asleep, although Minny could hear Mandira playing baseball by herself in her room upstairs. Mandira liked boys’ games. That is why she had given her jigsaw puzzle to Minny, after her father had bought her baseball. Mandira’s father was very nice and always told funny jokes. She had thanked Mandira’s mother and come back.
She had not wanted to sit and answer mother’s questions; she could tell mother was not really interested in her answers. She had wanted to go to her room and read the comics she had brought from school. But mother kept talking; mother was afraid, as if she was at school, finding that she had not taken the homework-copybook! But mother didn’t have any homework to do; she did not have to go anywhere, except to go shopping and meeting her friends like Mandira’s mother. Minny knew mother and Mandira’s mother had become best friends — she even remembered the day last year when she and mother had met Mandira’s mother and father on Parents Teachers Day. Daddy had not been able to come from his office.
So she had just sat turning the pages of her comics, looking at the pictures only, saving the reading for later; she knew that Daddy will be back soon anyway. Mother was waiting for Daddy to come, and she wanted Minny to be there when he came. When the clock had struck nine mother too had stopped waiting. They had just sat silently, waiting for father. Why didn’t mother at least put the TV on? She had wanted to do it herself, but she had felt unable to move; she knew mother was feeling afraid and she could not pretend as if there was nothing.
Both had heard the car stop outside. Why didn’t Daddy bring it inside? Will he go out again? That would be good; but will he go out with mother? She had heard his shoes outside; she knew the squeaky, erasery, sound they made. He must have parked the car on the road itself; he did this when he knew that he would be going out again. She had got up to go to her room, and then she had seen mother’s eyes on the door from which Daddy would enter; and she found she could not walk. She had sat down again.
Daddy too must have been looking at the door while walking up to it, so that when he entered his eyes were exactly where his mother was looking. Both had looked at each other, as if trying to understand something before saying it aloud; something they were both afraid of. Minnie had felt a heaviness in her chest, like a pillow; it had been there all evening. She realized it was fear, the kind grownups had. Did all grownups go about with heaviness on their chests? She had not moved from her corner of the sofa. I am just a doll, she had thought foolishly, left on the sofa carelessly by someone.
Finally Daddy had looked at her.
‘You are reading the old comic again.’
‘Yes, no. I exchanged for these at school.’
‘I’ll go and get the dinner ready.’ Mother was moving to the kitchen.
‘I’ve eaten,’ Daddy was still looking at her, ‘have you?’
‘No, yes’. Mother had stopped at the door.
‘I am going to sleep’, Minny had said, smiling at Daddy, and had gone to her room; Daddy had been smiling at her too. The whole evening had been plain silly; she had just made it all up in her mind. Stupid.
She had thought she had been asleep for hours, when she heard Daddy and mother talking in their room. Maybe it is morning already; I have only to turn my head and look at the windows, and it will be morning. When she listened carefully, their voices were louder, like the neighbour’s TV; but she could hear the tick tock of the wall clock too. It could be a dream; she had slowly inched her head out of the pillow’s darkness and looked at the clock. It was just 12.15. She heard a smothered weeping; mother. Morning time’s clear dreams; you wake up from it, and reach under your pillow to retrieve the hidden diamond necklace of the accursed princess.
She had got up from the bed not making any noise, and tiptoed to the window; Daddy’s car was still parked outside. She stood at the window and listened to the night sounds; some autorickshaws rounding the corners, some neighbourhood servants making preparations for their sleep, and the chowkidar already thumping his bamboo on the road. Mother and Daddy were shouting, falling silent, and then there was weeping, thick, clamped crying; it must be mother. She had leaned out of the window to see how it sounded from outside, by someone in the street. She had heard something fall, hearing it both from outside and inside; and she had closed the window, put on her slippers and come out of her room. She could hear better. She had reached the door of their room quietly, one step at a time, like climbing down a staircase in the dark.
No, no. then silence. Daddy’s easy chair dragged; then dragged back. Both shouting together. Why should I swear? Have to. Have to! Have to? Never. Not like that. Small thing. Twisting. How could you? Footsteps; father pacing round and round. Think of Minny. What, what? Meaning what? More dragging of the easy chair. That Kohli. Irresponsible. Everybody knows. How long? Something falling, then another; pillows. Pillows falling could not be heard from outside, she was sure. Kohli uncle was Mandira’s father. Pillows were kicked; then silence. Tick, tock, tick tock. Then a rising, muffled crying, from inside a pillow. Minny. Whole life. It was not mother weeping; it was Daddy.
She had turned to run back to her room; the doormat had slipped and she had fallen down. She had started sniffling only when the door had opened and Daddy had picked her up, his scratchy chin rubbing on her head. Mother had come out, a comb in her hand.
‘What were you doing here, Minny?’
She had felt Daddy holding his breath.
‘I was hungry.’
Mother had started crying only then.
Minny scratched her leg. The plaster had become smooth on the inside now; she could not even feel it sometimes till she stood up or felt its weight. Mandira must have stopped speaking to her, because all her friends had come to see her at home; all except Mandira. The windowsill was full of patches of black ants, all glued to the milk drops as if fallen asleep together; the child had gone to sleep, half hidden by the pugree. There were no sounds from the kitchen; mother must have finished cooking. She had dismissed the cooking woman last week, and was looking for another. Minny was sure that mother’s hair had become shinier, and she had begun humming her songs instead of singing the words. Mother had changed; she looked sharp and beautiful like pictures in the magazines.
Or maybe mother had not changed at all; maybe Minny had never looked at mother carefully before. There were too many colours on mother; red of her bindi, gold and garnet on her neck and earlobes, red and pink on her lips, several colours of her dresses, bracelets, fingernails, watchstraps, handbag, sandals, toe-nails. Minny had never noticed before. She also saw that this was not so only for mother; all women were like that. Maybe one day she would be like mother too?
The phone was ringing. Minny got up and went to get it; sometime Daddy rang up from office, and spoke to her. Mother was taking a bath, humming under a full shower.
‘Hello. Is it Minny? How are you, Minnie?’
She didn’t say anything. It was Mandira’s father.
‘Hello. Listen Minny; call mother.’
‘She is taking a shower.’
‘Call her. She’s finished cooking already?’
Minny put the receiver on the bundle of her old comics so that it did not bang, and went to the bathroom. Mother was splashing water and humming noisily. She knocked.
‘What is it, Minny?’
‘Phone for you.’
‘Who is it?’
‘I don’t know.’
Mother turned off the shower, came out in her housecoat. She pushed back her wet hair and picked up the receiver. The housecoat was wet in patches, and water was dripping on the floor, on the phone, on the comics lying on the telephone table.
She was silent for some time, and turned to look at Minny standing, looking at her.
She listened for some more time.
‘Okay.’ She put down the phone, and went to the bathroom. When she was closing the door, she saw Minny still standing.
‘What are you standing here for?’
‘Go to sleep dear, it is time.’
She lay on her bed, listening to mother preparing to go out; inverted images of the traffic outside were moving brightly from one end of the ceiling to the other. She knew that mother will come to see if she was sleeping; she will be lying with her eyes shut. Mother would smoothen the bed, arrange the scattered comics, and look around at the room, smelling somehow big , and fragrant. Then she would go out locking the main door gently. Same as yesterday. Afterwards Minny would open her eyes, and get up to sit at her window. She would read comics and wake up the sleeping ants with her needle. With her eyes shut, she waited. Mother had never called her ‘dear’ before.