Books With a Sense of Place (Katrina Onstad)Created by 49thShelf on June 10, 2012
“The Liz Dunns of this world tend to get married, and then twenty-three months after their wedding and the birth of their first child they establish sensible lower maintenance hairdos that last them forever. Liz Dunns take classes in croissant baking, and would rather chew on soccer balls than deny their children muesli… I am a traitor to my na …
I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life through the miracles of modern medicine would feel reborn. Just imagine looking at our world with brand new eyes, everything fresh, covered with dew and charged with beauty — pale skin and yellow daffodils, boiled lobsters and a full moon. And yet I’ve read books that tell me this isn’t the way newly created vision plays out in real life. Gifted with sight, previously blind patients become frightened and confused. They can’t make sense of shape or colour or depth. Everything shocks, and nothing brings solace. My brother, William, says, “Well think about it, Liz — kids lie in their cribs for nearly a year watching hand puppets and colourful toys come and go. They’re dumb as planks, and it takes them a long time to even twig to the notion of where they end and the world begins. Why should it be any different just because you’re older and technically wiser?”
In the end, those gifted with new eyesight tend to retreat into their own worlds. Some beg to be made blind again, yet when they consider it further, they hesitate, and realize they’re unable to surrender their sight. Bad visions are better than no visions.
Here’s something else I think about: in the movies, the way criminals are ready to squeal so long as they’re entered into a witness relocation program. They’re given a brand new name, passport and home, but they’ll never be able to contact anybody from their old life again; they have to choose between death and becoming someone entirely new. But you know what I think? I think the FBI simply shoots everybody who enters the program. The fact that nobody ever hears from these dead participants perversely convinces outsiders that the program really works. Let’s face it: they go to the same magic place in the country where people take their unwanted pets.
Listen to me go on like this. My sister, Leslie, says I’m morbid, but I don’t agree. I think I’m reasonable, just trying to be honest with myself about the ways of the world. Or come up with new ways of seeing them. I once read that for every person currently alive on earth, there are nineteen dead people who have lived before us. That’s not that much really. Our existence as a species on earth has been so short. We forget that.
I sometimes wonder how big a clump you could make if you were to take all creatures that have ever lived — not just people, but giraffes, plankton, amoebas, ferns and dinosaurs — and smush them all together in a big ball, a planet. The gravitational mass of this new clump would make it implode into a tiny ball as hot as the sun’s surface. Steam would sizzle out into space. But just maybe the iron in the blood of all of these creatures would be too heavy to leap out into space, and maybe a small and angry little planet with a molten iron core would form. And just maybe, on that new planet, life would start all over again.
I mention all of this because of the comet that passed earth seven years ago, back in 1997 — Hale-Bopp, a chunk of some other demolished planet hurtling about the universe. I first saw it just past sunset while standing in the parking lot of Rogers Video. Teenage cliques dressed like hooligans and sluts were pointing up, at this small dab of slightly melted butter in the blue-black heavens above Hollyburn Mountain. Sure, I think the zodiac is pure hooey, but when an entirely new object appears in the sky, it opens some kind of window to your soul and to your sense of destiny. No matter how rational you try to be, it’s hard to escape the feeling that such a celestial event portends some kind of radical change.
Funny that it took a comet to trigger a small but radical change in my life. In the years until then, I’d been sieving the contents of my days with ever finer mesh, trying to sort out those sharp and nasty bits that were causing me grief: bad ideas, pointless habits, robotic thinking. Like anybody, I wanted to find out if my life was ever going to make sense, or maybe even feel like a story. In the wake of Hale-Bopp, I realized that my life, while technically adequate, had become all it was ever going to be. If I could just keep things going on their current even keel for a few more decades, the coroner could dump me into a peat bog without my ever having once gone fully crazy.
I made the radical change standing in the video store’s parking lot, holding copies of On the Beach, Bambi, Terms of Endearment, How Green Was My Valley and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, staring up at the comet. I decided that instead of demanding certainty from life, I now wanted peace. No more trying to control everything — it was now time to go with the flow. With that one decision, the chain-mail shroud I’d been wearing my entire life fell from my body and I was light as a gull. I’d freed myself.
* * *
Of course, we’re born alone, and when we die, we join every living thing that’s ever existed—and ever will. When I’m dead I won’t be lonely any more — I’ll be joining a big party. Sometimes at the office, when the phones aren’t ringing, and when I’ve completed my daily paperwork, and when The Dwarf To Whom I Report is still out for lunch, I sit in my chest-high sage green cubicle and take comfort in knowing that since I don’t remember where I was before I was born, why should I be worried about where I go after I die?
In any event, were you to enter the cubicle farm that is Landover Communication Systems, you probably wouldn’t notice me, daydreaming or otherwise. I long ago learned to render myself invisible. I pull myself into myself, and my eyes become stale and dull. One of my favourite things on TV is when an actor is in a casket pretending to be dead, or, even more challenging, laid out on a morgue’s steel draining pan bathed in clinical white light. Did I see an eyelash flicker? Did that cheek muscle just twitch? Is the thorax pumping slightly? Is this particular fascination of mine goofy, or is it sick?
I’m alone now, and I was alone when I saw my first comet that night in the parking lot, the comet that lightened my burden in life. It made me so giddy, I chucked the rented tapes into my Honda’s back seat and went for a walk over to Ambleside Beach. For once I didn’t look wistfully at all the couples and parents and families headed back to their cars, or at the teenagers arriving to drink and drug and screw all night in between the logs on the sand.
The moon was full and glamorous — so bright it made me want to do a crossword puzzle under its light, just to see if I could. I took off my runners and, with them in hand, I walked into the seafoam and looked west, out at Vancouver Island and the Pacific. I remembered an old Road Runner versus Coyote cartoon — one in which the Coyote buys the world’s most powerful magnet. When he turns it on, hundreds of astonishing things come flying across the desert toward him: tin cans, keys, grand pianos, money and weapons. I felt like I’d just activated a similar sort of magnet, and I needed to wait and see what came flying across the oceans and deserts to meet me.
“It’s an immense night out there, wheeling and windy. The lights on the street and in the houses against the black wetness, little unilluminating glints that might be painted on it. The town seems huddled together, cowering on a high tiny perch, afraid to move lest it topple into the wind.”
The town is Horizon, the setting of Sinclair Ross’ …
Saturday Evening, April 8
Philip has thrown himself across the bed and fallen asleep, his clothes on still, one of his long legs dangling to the floor. . . .
He looks old and worn-out tonight; and as I stood over him a little while ago his face brought home to me how he shrinks from another town, how tired he is, and heartsick of it all. I ran my fingers through his hair, then stooped and kissed him. Lightly, for that is of all things what I mustn’t do, let him ever suspect me of being sorry. He’s a very adult, selfsufficient man, who can’t bear to be fussed or worried over; and sometimes, broodless old woman that I am, I get impatient being just his wife, and start in trying to mother him too.
His sermon for tomorrow is spread out on the little table by the bed, the text that he always uses for his first Sunday. As For Me and My House We Will Serve the Lord. It’s a stalwart, four-square, Christian sermon. It nails his colors to the mast. It declares to the town his creed, lets them know what they may expect. The Word of God as revealed in Holy Writ — Christ Crucified — salvation through His Grace — those are the things that Philip stands for.
And as usual he’s been drawing again. I turned over the top sheet, and sure enough on the back of it there was a little Main Street sketched. It’s like all the rest, a single row of smug, false-fronted stores, a loiterer or two, in the distance the prairie again. And like all the rest there’s something about it that hurts. False fronts ought to be laughed at, never understood or pitied. They’re such outlandish things, the front of a store built up to look like a second storey. They ought always to be seen that way, pretentious, ridiculous, never as Philip sees them, stricken with a look of self-awareness and futility.
That’s Philip, though, what I must recognize and acknowledge as the artist in him. Sermon and drawing together, they’re a kind of symbol, a summing up. The smalltown preacher and the artist — what he is and what he nearly was — the failure, the compromise, the going-on — it’s all there — the discrepancy between the man and the little niche that holds him.
And that hurt too, made me slip away furtively and stand a minute looking at the dull bare walls, my shoulders drawn up round my ears to resist their cold damp stillness. And huddling there I wished for a son again, a son that I might give back a little of what I’ve taken from him, that I might at least believe I haven’t altogether wasted him, only postponed to another generation his fulfillment. A foolish, sentimental wish that I ought to have outgrown years ago — that drove me outside at last, to stand on the doorstep shivering, my lips locked, a spatter of rain in my face.
It’s an immense night out there, wheeling and windy. The lights on the street and in the houses are helpless against the black wetness, little unilluminating glints that might be painted on it. The town seems huddled together, cowering on a high, tiny perch, afraid to move lest it topple into the wind. Close to the parsonage is the church, black even against the darkness, towering ominously up through the night and merging with it. There’s a soft steady swish of rain on the roof, and a gurgle of eavestroughs running over. Above, in the high cold night, the wind goes swinging past, indifferent, liplessly mournful. It frightens me, makes me feel lost, dropped on this little perch of town and abandoned. I wish Philip would waken.
Shortlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize
Against his will and his nature, the hulking Gordon Rankin ("Rank") is cast as an enforcer, a goon -- by his classmates, his hockey coaches, and especially his own "tiny, angry" father, Gordon Senior.
Rank gamely lives up to his role -- until tragedy strikes, using Rank as its blunt instrument. Escapin …
Marian has a problem. A willing member of the consumer society in which she lives, she suddenly finds herself identifying with the things being consumed. She can cope with her tidy-minded fiancé, Peter, who likes shooting rabbits. She can cope with her job in market research, and the antics of her roommate. She can even cope with Duncan, a graduat …
I know I was all right on Friday when I got up; if anything I was feeling more stolid than usual. When I went out to the kitchen to get breakfast Ainsley was there, moping: she said she had been to a bad party the night before. She swore there had been nothing but dentistry students, which depressed her so much she had consoled herself by getting drunk.
“You have no idea how soggy it is,” she said, “having to go through twenty conversations about the insides of peoples’ mouths. The most reaction I got out of them was when I described an abscess I once had. They positively drooled. And most men look at something besides your teeth, for god’s sake.”
She had a hangover, which put me in a cheerful mood – it made me feel so healthy – and I poured her a glass of tomato juice and briskly fixed her an Alka- Seltzer, listening and making sympathetic noises while she complained.
“As if I didn’t get enough of that at work,” she said. Ainsley has a job as a tester of defective electric toothbrushes for an electric toothbrush company: a temporary job. What she is waiting for is an opening in one of those little art galleries, even though they don’t pay well: she wants to meet the artists. Last year, she told me, it was actors, but then she actually met some. “It’s an absolute fixation. I expect they all carry those bent mirrors around in their coat pockets and peer into their own mouths every time they go to the john to make sure they’re still cavity- free.” She ran one hand reflectively through her hair, which is long and red, or rather auburn. “Could you imagine kissing one? He’d say ‘Open wide’ beforehand. They’re so bloody one- track.”
“It must have been awful,” I said, refilling her glass. “Couldn’t you have changed the topic?”
Ainsley raised her almost non- existent eyebrows, which hadn’t been coloured in yet that morning. “Of course not,” she said. “I pretended to be terribly interested. And naturally I didn’t let on what my job was: those professional men get so huffy if you know anything about their subject. You know, like Peter.”
Ainsley tends to make jabs at Peter, especially when she isn’t feeling well. I was magnanimous and didn’t respond. “You’d better eat something before you go to work,” I said, “it’s better when you’ve got something on your stomach.”
“Oh god,” said Ainsley, “I can’t face it. Another day of machines and mouths. I haven’t had an interesting one since last month, when that lady sent back her toothbrush because the bristles were falling off. We found out she’d been using Ajax.”
I got so caught up in being efficient for Ainsley’s benefit while complimenting myself on my moral superiority to her that I didn’t realize how late it was until she reminded me. At the electric toothbrush company they don’t care what time you breeze in, but my company thinks of itself as punctual. I had to skip the egg and wash down a glass of milk and a bowl of cold cereal which I knew would leave me hungry long before lunchtime. I chewed through a piece of bread while Ainsley watched me in nauseated silence and grabbed up my purse, leaving Ainsley to close the apartment door behind me.
We live on the top floor of a large house in one of the older and more genteel districts, in what I suppose used to be the servants’ quarters. This means there are two flights of stairs between us and the front door, the higher flight narrow and slippery, the lower one wide and carpeted but with stair rods that come loose. In the high heels expected by the office I have to go down sideways, clutching the bannister. That morning I made it safely past the line of pioneer brass warming- pans strung on the wall of our stairway, avoided catching myself on the many- pronged spinning wheel on the second-floor landing, and sidestepped quickly down past the ragged regimental flag behind glass and the row of oval- framed ancestors that guard the first stairway. I was relieved to see there was no one in the downstairs hall. On level ground I strode towards the door, swerving to avoid the rubber plant on one side and the hall table with the écru doily and the round brass tray on the other. Behind the velvet curtain to the right I could hear the child performing her morning penance at the piano. I thought I was safe.
But before I reached the door it swung silently inward upon its hinges, and I knew I was trapped. It was the lady down below. She was wearing a pair of spotless gardening gloves and carrying a trowel. I wondered who she’d been burying in the garden.
“Good morning, Miss MacAlpin,” she said.
“Good morning.” I nodded and smiled. I can never remember her name, and neither can Ainsley; I suppose we have what they call a mental block about it. I looked past her towards the street, but she didn’t move out of the doorway.
“I was out last night,” she said. “At a meeting.” She has an indirect way of going about things. I shifted from one foot to the other and smiled again, hoping she would realize I was in a hurry. “The child tells me there was another fire.”
“Well, it wasn’t exactly a fire,” I said. The child had taken this mention of her name as an excuse to stop practising, and was standing now in the velvet doorway of the parlour, staring at me. She is a hulking creature of fifteen or so who is being sent to an exclusive private girls’ school, and she has to wear a green tunic with knee-socks to match. I’m sure she’s really quite normal, but there’s something cretinous about the hair- ribbon perched up on top of her gigantic body.
The lady down below took off one of her gloves and patted her chignon. “Ah,” she said sweetly. “The child says there was a lot of smoke.”
“Everything was under control,” I said, not smiling this time. “It was just the pork chops.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. “Well, I do wish you would tell Miss Tewce to try not to make quite so much smoke in future. I’m afraid it upsets the child.” She holds Ainsley alone responsible for the smoke, and seems to think she sends it out of her nostrils like a dragon. But she never stops Ainsley in the hall to talk about it: only me. I suspect she’s decided Ainsley isn’t respectable, whereas I am. It’s probably the way we dress: Ainsley says I choose clothes as though they’re a camouflage or a protective colouration, though I can’t see anything wrong with that. She herself goes in for neon pink.
Of course I missed the bus: as I crossed the lawn I could see it disappearing across the bridge in a cloud of air pollution. While I was standing under the tree – our street has many trees, all of them enormous – waiting for the next bus, Ainsley came out of the house and joined me. She’s a quick- change artist; I could never put myself together in such a short time. She was looking a lot healthier – possibly the effects of makeup, though you can never tell with Ainsley – and she had her red hair piled up on top of her head, as she always does when she goes to work. The rest of the time she wears it down in straggles. She had on her orange and pink sleeveless dress, which I judged was too tight across the hips. The day was going to be hot and humid; already I could feel a private atmosphere condensing around me like a plastic bag. Maybe I should have worn a sleeveless dress too.
“She got me in the hall,” I said. “About the smoke.”
“The old bitch,” said Ainsley. “Why can’t she mind her own business?” Ainsley doesn’t come from a small town as I do, so she’s not as used to people being snoopy; on the other hand she’s not as afraid of it either. She has no idea about the consequences.
“She’s not that old,” I said, glancing over at the curtained windows of the house; though I knew she couldn’t hear us. “Besides, it wasn’t her who noticed the smoke, it was the child. She was at a meeting.”
“Probably the W.C.T.U.,” Ainsley said. “Or the I.O.D.E. I’ll bet she wasn’t at a meeting at all; she was hiding behind that damn velvet curtain, wanting us to think she was at a meeting so we’d really do something. What she wants is an orgy.”
“Now Ainsley,” I said, “you’re being paranoid.” Ainsley is convinced that the lady down below comes upstairs when we aren’t there and looks round our apartment and is silently horrified, and even suspects her of ruminating over our mail, though not of going so far as to open it. It’s a fact that she sometimes answers the front door for our visitors before they ring the bell. She must think she’s within her rights to take precautions: when we first considered renting the apartment she made it clear to us, by discreet allusions to previous tenants, that whatever happened the child’s innocence must not be corrupted, and that two young ladies were surely more to be depended upon than two young men.
“I’m doing my best,” she had said, sighing and shaking her head. She had intimated that her husband, whose portrait in oils hung above the piano, had not left as much money as he should have. “Of course you realize your apartment has no private entrance?” She had been stressing the drawbacks rather than the advantages, almost as though she didn’t want us to rent. I said we did realize it; Ainsley said nothing. We had agreed I would do the talking and Ainsley would sit and look innocent, something she can do very well when she wants to – she has a pink- and- white blunt baby’s face, a bump for a nose, and large blue eyes she can make as round as ping- pong balls. On this occasion I had even got her to wear gloves.
The lady down below shook her head again. “If it weren’t for the child,” she said, “I would sell the house. But I want the child to grow up in a good district.”
I said I understood, and she said that of course the district wasn’t as good as it used to be: some of the larger houses were too expensive to keep up and the owners had been forced to sell them to immigrants (the corners of her mouth turned gently down) who had divided them up into rooming houses. “But that hasn’t reached our street yet,” she said. “And I tell the child exactly which streets she can walk on and which she can’t.” I said I thought that was wise. She had seemed much easier to deal with before we had signed the lease. And the rent was so low, and the house was so close to the bus stop. For this city it was a real find.
“Besides,” I added to Ainsley, “they have a right to be worried about the smoke. What if the house was on fire? And she’s never mentioned the other things.”
“What other things? We’ve never done any other things.”
“Well . . .” I said. I suspected the lady down below had taken note of all the bottle- shaped objects we had carried upstairs, though I tried my best to disguise them as groceries. It was true she had never specifically forbidden us to do anything – that would be too crude a violation of her law of nuance – but this only makes me feel I am actually forbidden to do everything.
“On still nights,” said Ainsley as the bus drew up, “I can hear her burrowing through the woodwork.”
We didn’t talk on the bus; I don’t like talking on buses, I would rather look at the advertisements. Besides, Ainsley and I don’t have much in common except the lady down below. I’ve only known her since just before we moved in: she was a friend of a friend, looking for a room mate at the same time I was, which is the way these things are usually done. Maybe I should have tried a computer; though on the whole it’s worked out fairly well. We get along by a symbiotic adjustment of habits and with a minimum of that pale- mauve hostility you often find among women. Our apartment is never exactly clean, but we keep it from gathering more than a fine plum- bloom of dust by an unspoken agreement: if I do the breakfast dishes, Ainsley does the supper ones; if I sweep the living- room floor, Ainsley wipes the kitchen table. It’s a see- saw arrangement and we both know that if one beat is missed the whole thing will collapse. Of course we each have our own bedroom and what goes on in there is strictly the owner’s concern. For instance Ainsley’s floor is covered by a treacherous muskeg of used clothes with ashtrays scattered here and there on it like stepping- stones, but though I consider it a fire hazard I never speak to her about it. By such mutual refrainings – I assume they are mutual since there must be things I do that she doesn’t like – we manage to preserve a reasonably frictionless equilibrium.
We reached the subway station, where I bought a package of peanuts. I was beginning to feel hungry already. I offered some to Ainsley, but she refused, so I ate them all on the way downtown.
We got off at the second- last stop south and walked a block together; our office buildings are in the same district.
“By the way,” said Ainsley as I was turning off at my street, “have you got three dollars? We’re out of scotch.” I rummaged in my purse and handed over, not without a sense of injustice: we split the cost but rarely the contents. At the age of ten I wrote a temperance essay for a United Church Sunday- school competition, illustrating it with pictures of car crashes, diagrams of diseased livers, and charts showing the effects of alcohol upon the circulatory system; I expect that’s why I can never take a second drink without a mental image of a warning sign printed in coloured crayons and connected with the taste of tepid communion grape juice. This puts me at a disadvantage with Peter; he likes me to try and keep up with him.
As I hurried towards my office building, I found myself envying Ainsley her job. Though mine was better- paying and more interesting, hers was more temporary: she had an idea of what she wanted to do next. She could work in a shiny new air- conditioned office building, whereas mine was dingy brick with small windows. Also, her job was unusual. When she meets people at parties they are always surprised when she tells them she’s a tester of defective electric toothbrushes, and she always says, “What else do you do with a B.A. these days?” Whereas my kind of job is only to be expected. I was thinking too that really I was better equipped to handle her job than she is. From what I see around the apartment, I’m sure I have much more mechanical ability than Ainsley.
By the time I finally reached the office I was three- quarters of an hour late. None commented but all took note.
Shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction! When she got in his tall bed and lay down it was so high that she felt like the princess and the pea only it was coins that were under the mattress. He let her spoon him but it was never the other way around. She was learning to rely on his smell. Up close, he always smelt like fres …
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry’s stunning internationally acclaimed bestseller, is set in mid-1970s India. It tells the story of four unlikely people whose lives come together during a time of political turmoil soon after the government declares a “State of Internal Emergency.” Through days of bleakness and hope, their circumstances – and …
One: City By the Sea
Dina Dalal seldom indulged in looking back at her life with regret or bitterness, or questioning why things had turned out the way they had, cheating her of the bright future everyone had predicted for her when she was in school, when her name was still Dina Shroff. And if she did sink into one of these rare moods, she quickly swam out of it. What was the point of repeating the story over and over and over, she asked herself--it always ended the same way; whichever corridor she took, she wound up in the same room.
Dina's father had been a doctor, a GP with a modest practice who followed the Hippocratic oath somewhat more passionately than others of his profession. During the early years of Dr. Shroff's career, his devotion to his work was diagnosed, by peers, family members, and senior physicians, as typical of youthful zeal and vigour. "How refreshing, this enthusiasm of the young," they smiled, nodding sagely, confident that time would douse the fires of idealism with a healthy dose of cynicism and family responsibilities.
But marriage, and the arrival of a son, followed eleven years later by a daughter, changed nothing for Dr. Shroff. Time only sharpened the imbalance between his fervour to ease suffering and his desire to earn a comfortable income.
"How disappointing," said friends and relatives, shaking their heads. "Such high hopes we had for him. And he keeps slaving like a clerk, like a fanatic, refusing to enjoy life. Poor Mrs. Shroff. Never a vacation, never a party--no fun at all in her existence."
At fifty-one, when Most GPS would have begun considering options like working half-time, hiring an inexpensive junior, or even selling the practice in favour of early retirement, Dr. Shroff had neither the bank balance nor the temperament to permit such indulgences. Instead, he volunteered to lead a campaign of medical graduates bound for districts in the interior. There, where typhoid and cholera, unchallenged by science or technology, were still reaping their routine harvest of villagers, Dr. Shroff would try to seize the deadly sickles or, at the very least, to blunt them.
But Mrs. Shroff undertook a different sort of campaign: to dissuade her husband from going into what she felt were the jaws of certain death. She attempted to coach Dina with words to sway her father. After all, Dina, at twelve, was Daddy's darling. Mrs. Shroff knew that her son, Nusswan, could be of no help in this enterprise. Enlisting him would have ruined any chance of changing her husband's mind.
The turning point in the father-and-son relationship had come seven years ago, on Nusswan's sixteenth birthday. Uncles and aunts had been invited to dinner, and someone said, "Well, Nusswan, you will soon be studying to become a doctor, just like your father."
"I don't want to be a doctor," Nusswan answered. "I'll be going into business-import and export."
Some of the uncles and aunts nodded approvingly. Others recoiled in mock horror, turning to Dr. Shroff. "Is this true? No father-son partnership?"
"Of course it's true," he said. "My children are free to do whatever they please."
But five-year-old Dina had seen the hurt on her father's face before he could hide it. She ran to him and clambered onto his lap. "Daddy, I want to be a doctor, just like you, when I grow up."
Everyone laughed and applauded, and said, Smart little girl, knows how to get what she wants. Later, they whispered that the son was obviously not made of the same solid stuff as the father-no ambition, wouldn't amount to much.
Dina had repeated her wish in the years to come, continuing to regard her father as some kind of god who gave people good health, who struggled against illness, and who, sometimes, succeeded in temporarily thwarting death. And Dr. Shroff was delighted with his bright child. On parents' night at the convent school, the principal and teachers always had the highest praise for her. She would succeed if she wanted to, Dr. Shroff knew it for certain.
Mrs. Shroff also knew, for certain, that her daughter was the one to recruit in the campaign against Dr. Shroff's foolish philanthropic plan of working in remote, Godforsaken villages. But Dina refused to cooperate; she did not approve of devious means to keep her beloved father home.
Then Mrs. Shroff resorted to other methods, using not money or his personal safety or his family to persuade him, for she knew these would fail hopelessly. Instead, she invoked his patients, claiming he was abandoning them, old and frail and helpless. "What will they do if you go so far away? They trust you and rely on you. How can you be so cruel? You have no idea how much you mean to them."
"No, that is not the point," said Dr. Shroff. He was familiar with the anfractuous arguments that her love for him could prompt her to wield. Patiently he explained there were GPS galore in the city who could take care of the assorted aches and pains-where he was going, the people had no one. He comforted her that it was only a temporary assignment, hugging and kissing her much more than was usual for him. "I promise to be back soon," he said. "Before you even grow used to my absence."
But Dr. Shroff could not keep his promise. Three weeks into the medical campaign he was dead, not from typhoid or cholera, but from a cobra's bite, far from the lifesaving reach of antivenins.
Mrs. Shroff received the news calmly. People said it was because she was a doctor's wife, more familiar with death than other mortals. They reasoned that Dr. Shroff must have often carried such tidings to her regarding his own patients, thus preparing her for the inevitable.
When she took brisk charge of the funeral arrangements, managing everything with superb efficiency, people wondered if there was not something a little abnormal about her behaviour. Between disbursing funds from her handbag for the various expenses, she accepted condolences, comforted grieving relatives, tended the oil lamp at the head of Dr. Shroff's bed, washed and ironed her white sari, and made sure there was a supply of incense and sandalwood in the house. She personally instructed the cook about the special vegetarian meal for the next day.
After the full four days of death ceremonies, Dina was still crying. Mrs. Shroff, who was busy tallying the prayer-bungalow charges from the Towers of Silence, said briskly, "Come, my daughter, be sensible now. Daddy would not like this." So Dina did her best to control herself.
Then Mrs. Shroff continued absentmindedly, writing out the cheque. "You could have stopped him if you wanted. He would have listened to you," she said.
Dina's sobs burst out with renewed intensity. In addition to the grief for her father, her tears now included anger towards her mother, even hatred. It would take her a few months to understand that there was no malice or accusation contained in what had been said, just a sad and simple statement of fact as seen by her mother.
Six months after Dr. Shroff's death, after being the pillar that everyone could lean on, Mrs. Shroff gradually began to crumble. Retreating from daily life, she took very little interest in the running of her household or in her own person.
It made little difference to Nusswan, who was twenty-three and busy planning his own future. But Dina, at twelve, could have done with a parent for a few more years. She missed her father dreadfully. Her mother's withdrawal made it much worse.
Nusswan Shroff had earned his own living as a businessman for two years prior to his father's death. He was still single, living at home, saving his money while searching for a suitable flat and a suitable wife. With his father's passing and his mother's reclusion, he realized that the pursuit of a flat was unnecessary, and a wife, urgent.
He now assumed the role of head of the family, and legal guardian to Dina. All their relatives agreed this was as it should be. They praised his selfless decision, admitting they had been wrong about his capabilities. He also took over the family finances, promising that his mother and sister would want for nothing; he would look after them out of his own salary. But, even as he spoke, he knew there was no need for this. The money from the sale of Dr. Shroff's dispensary was sufficient.
Nusswan's first decision as head of the family was to cut back on the hired help. The cook, who came for half the day and prepared the two main meals, was kept on; Lily, the live-in servant, was let go. "We cannot continue in the same luxury as before," he declared. "I just can't afford the wages."
Mrs. Shroff expressed some doubt about the change. "Who will do the cleaning? My hands and feet don't work like before."
"Don't worry, Mamma, we will all share it. You can do easy things, like dusting the furniture. We can wash our own cups and saucers, surely. And Dina is a young girl, full of energy. It will be good for her, teach her how to look after a home."
"Yes, maybe you are right," said Mrs. Shroff, vaguely convinced of the need for money-saving measures.
But Dina knew there was more to it. The week before, while passing the kitchen on her way to the wc well past midnight, she had noticed her brother with the ayah: Lily sitting on one end of the kitchen table, her feet resting on the edge; Nusswan, his pyjamas around his ankles, stood between Lily's thighs, clasping her hips to him. Dina watched his bare buttocks with sleepy curiosity, then crept back to bed without using the toilet, her cheeks flushed. But she must have lingered a moment too long, for Nusswan had seen her.
Not a word was spoken about it. Lily departed (with a modest bonus, unbeknownst to Mrs. Shroff), tearfully declaring that she would never find as nice a family to work for ever again. Dina felt sorry for her, and also despised her.
Then the new household arrangement got under way. Everyone made an honest effort. The experiment in self-reliance seemed like fun. "It's a little like going camping," said Mrs. Shroff.
"That's the spirit," said Nusswan.
With the passing of days, Dina's chores began to increase. As a token of his participation, Nusswan continued to wash his cup, saucer, and breakfast plate before going to work. Beyond that, he did nothing.
One morning, after swallowing his last gulp of tea, he said, "I'm very late today, Dina. Please wash my things."
"I'm not your servant! Wash your own dirty plates!" Weeks of pent-up resentment came gushing. "You said we would each do our own work! All your stinking things you leave for me!"
"Listen to the little tigress," said Nusswan, amused.
"You mustn't speak like that to your big brother," chided Mrs. Shroff gently. ";Remember, we must share and share alike."
"He's cheating! He doesn't do any work! I do everything!"
Nusswan hugged his mother: "Bye-bye, Mamma," and gave Dina a friendly pat on the shoulder to make up. She shrank from him. "The tigress is still angry," he said and left for the office.
Mrs. Shroff tried to soothe Dina, promising to discuss it later with Nusswan, maybe convince him to hire a part-time ayah, but her resolve melted within hours. Matters continued as before. As weeks went by, instead of restoring fairness in the household, she began turning into one of the chores on her daughter's ever-growing list.
Now Mrs. Shroff had to be told what to do. When food was placed before her, she ate it, though it did her little good, for she kept losing weight. She had to be reminded to bathe and change her clothes. If toothpaste was squeezed out and handed to her on the brush, she brushed her teeth. For Dina, the most unpleasant task was helping her mother wash her hair-it fell out in clumps on the bathroom floor, and more followed when she combed it for her.
Once every month, Mrs. Shroff attended her husband's prayers at the fire-temple. She said it gave her great comfort to hear the elderly Dustoor Framji's soothing tones supplicating for her husband's soul. Dina missed school to accompany her mother, worried about her wandering off somewhere.
Before commencing the ceremony, Dustoor Framji unctuously shook Mrs. Shroff's hand and gave Dina a prolonged hug of the sort he reserved for girls and young women. His reputation for squeezing and fondling had earned him the title of Dustoor Daab-Chaab, along with the hostility of his colleagues, who resented not so much his actions but his lack of subtlety, his refusal to disguise his embraces with fatherly or spiritual concern. They feared that one day he would go too far, drool over his victim or something, and disgrace the fire-temple.
Dina squirmed in his grasp as he patted her head, rubbed her neck, stroked her back and pressed himself against her. He had a very short beard, stubble that resembled flakes of grated coconut, and it scraped her cheeks and forehead. He released her just when she had summoned enough courage to tear her trapped body from his arms.
After the fire-temple, for the rest of the day at home Dina tried to make her mother talk, asking her advice about housework or recipes, and when that failed, about Daddy, and the days of their newlywed lives. Faced with her mother's dreamy silences, Dina felt helpless. Soon, her concern for her mother was tempered by the instinct of youth which held her back-she would surely receive her portion of grief and sorrow in due course, there was no need to take on the burden prematurely.
And Mrs. Shroff spoke in monosyllables or sighs, staring into Dina's face for answers. As for dusting the furniture, she could never proceed beyond wiping the picture frame containing her husband's graduation photograph. She spent most of her time gazing out the window.
Nusswan preferred to regard his mother's disintegration as a widow's appropriate renunciation, wherein she was sloughing off the dross of life to concentrate on spiritual matters. He focused his attention on the raising of Dina. The thought of the enormous responsibility resting on his shoulders worried him ceaselessly.
He had always perceived his father to be a strict disciplinarian; he had stood in awe of him, had even been a little frightened of him. If he was to fill his father's shoes, he would have to induce the same fear in others, he decided, and prayed regularly for courage and guidance in his task. He confided to the relatives-the uncles and aunts-that Dina's defiance, her stubbornness, was driving him crazy, and only the Almighty's help gave him the strength to go forward in his duty.
His sincerity touched them. They promised to pray for him too. "Don't worry, Nusswan, everything will be all right. We will light a lamp at the fire-temple."
Heartened by their support, Nusswan began taking Dina with him to the fire-temple once as week. There, he thrust a stick of sandalwood in her hand and whispered fiercely in her ear, "Now pray properly--ask Dadaji to make you a good girl, ask Him to make you obedient."
While she bowed before the sanctum, he travelled along the outer wall hung with pictures of various dustoors and high priests. He glided from display to display, stroking the garlands, hugging the frames, kissing the glass, and ending with the very tall picture of Zarathustra to which he glued his lips for a full minute. Then, from the vessel of ashes placed in the sanctum's doorway, he smeared a pinch on his forehead, another bit across the throat, and undid his top two shirt buttons to rub a fistful over his chest.
Like talcum powder, thought Dina, watching from the corner of her eye, from her bowed position, straining to keep from laughing. She did not raise her head till he had finished his antics.
"Did you pray properly?" he demanded when they were outside.
"Good. Now all the bad thoughts will leave your head, you will feel peace and quiet in your heart."
From the Hardcover edition.