She measures distances with her eyes and stands right at the centre of the room so that the fleas won’t get to her. The room is dank and the window with the crooked frame does not let in the mountains outside, white and blue. Light leaks in like puss.
She has heard tales about this room, heard about the voice in the night, the footsteps that loosen clumps of dirt off the cow dung mud walls with their weight, how the building shook more than any of the others during the earthquake, as if there were someone heaving against it from behind, heaving against it and lifting it up and slamming it back down, shaking its foundation with the strength of a giant. She has also heard about the fleas that appeared one night and covered the walls, floor, ceiling black like burnt sugar spread in layers and she can feel them now, moving under the cow dung that the maids washed over all the walls. Movement catches her eye; she turns, it vanishes, catches her from the other corner and vanishes again and she feels the floor shiver and the ceiling vibrate and cow dung mud move in ripples over the walls, rippling over the bodies of fleas like black sugar, trapped under shit.
Her Gods had never told her things would come to this. Trapped between the orange liquid, the pictures of Ram, Shiva, Kali on all four walls, the incense that smoked a grey cloud too fat to push out the door, she had never thought things would come to this. The rice tasted of her orange liquid. It traveled through her body and came out in her eyes in lightning bolts of red. Storms grew around her ires. She was drunk on her dinner. She had not known.
She used to walk through the gardens then, conscious of her slender waist, with her oiled hair spilling down her back, her maid one step behind her.
“Kali, keep some rose water by the bed tonight. He is coming… again.”
And she blushed at the thought of her husband by her side and blushed even more as she passed the statues of European women standing fat, white, naked around the frog-shaped pond.
He used to bring her perfumes from Europe in dozens of boxes and the jewels flooded in in caskets—rubies, diamonds, pearls—and the saris came in every shade of color and she would wrap her naked self with them and throw them around the room and watch them settle to the ground, lengths of cloth curving and rippling in multicoloured designs. He brought her Tibetan mastiffs that seemed to bark from their balls and Pekinese that yapped like the maids in the kitchens and turtles and white rabbits and a peacock that fanned its tail to every dawn. He even brought her a leopard once, a kitten with teeth like razors and she used to spend whole days playing with it till one day it grew up and started snarling behind its cage, and when it ripped the thumb off the servant feeding it, she wept as he ordered it to be sent to the zoo. And he used to come to her almost every night and she could smell him before he came and hear the jingles of his military uniform and the heavy clicks of his boots of power.
But that did not last very long. She looked out her window one evening when she heard the clicks of the boots of his power on stone, and he was there with the Maharani, walking under the blue red sky of dusk and swallows flitted around their heads in the gardens, and the Maharani giggled like a little girl even though she was nearing forty. And it was still the Maharani who he took with him to his parties and it was she whom he presented to the world as his wife and it was she who bore him his only son, the inheritor of the big white house like a slice of moon fallen clear off the sky and the statues of white women and the gardens of white jasmine. It was she he turned to when he needed consolation or hope or home.
She was his fourth wife and she had no title. She was no Maharani, she was not even Rani. She was his concubine and he had married her in a temple with a lone priest chanting the prayers; he had married her in a hurry and as soon as the chanting stopped, he snapped his fingers and the priest ran out of the temple tripping over his priest’s dress cloth on the monsoon-wet stairs, and she could still see the white shadow of the half-naked priest running with the fear of God through the dark rain while he pulled her to the ground.
“Kali, tell me, what is the news of the other houses?”
She was tired. Her eyes were swollen and there were cooling leaves around them. He had not come to her in five nights.
Kali’s face brightened. She liked conversation that had to do with other people’s lives and she had a lot to say on the subject.
She let out her high cackle like a flock of ducks lifting to the ceiling and the Ranisab felt disorientated, the sound resounding in her head. She had caught Kali today playing with her saris. Kali was stripped naked down to her petticoat—who does she think she is—and she was fashioning herself in front of the mirror, cradling her pin-sized breasts with the Ranisab’s multi-coloured cloths, first this way and then that. The Ranisab did not want a confrontation, so she exaggerated her footsteps and stomped her way towards the door. Kali heard, panicked, flew across the room dragging lengths of color behind her, and met the Ranisab at the door with her cholo worn inside-out. The Ranisab wanted to slap her then.
“Well, they say the Maharani is expecting again. Rita told me she has been having morning sickness, puking like a dog. At forty! What shame, how strong she must be down there. Tsk tsk, after eight pregnancies and three miscarriages, one would think she has had enough. And her two daughters married already and her son nearing twenty! What shame, what will people think?”
“She can do whatever she wants, Kali. Look at who her father is. No one can touch her, not even him.” She looked out the window at the hills growing in the horizon.
“What about the other two?”
“Rani Sita is still breastfeeding. One would think a woman of her stature would let the nurse do the nursing, but no, Sita Rani needs to have it her own way. What a wild thing, I must say. I heard she is going for the tiger hunt as soon as the child is weaned. Oh… but you must hear the juiciest piece of news… one of the cooks told me that there is something going on between the Rani and the cow boy. Mmhmm… he seems to be going to the house more often than to the cow sheds. I wonder who exactly it is that he is milking?”
“Tsk, Kali, your mind is even darker than your name.”
“Oh yes, but it is the truth I speak, Ranisab, and what innocence can I have when there is corruption all around me?”
“You are only 13. You are not supposed to know such things.”
“Women of my age are mothers in my village, Ranisab. I am not a girl anymore.”
“But make sure you control your tongue when other people are around. I don’t want you to spoil my reputation.”
“No Ranisab, of course, I am master of my tongue. Do you want to hear of Min Rani?”
“What can possibly be new with her?”
“She is going on pilgrimage.”
“Mmhmm. To ManaKamana.”
“For the seventh time, for the same thing. I don’t think she will ever conceive. She is not fertile. But if you ask me, I don’t think she is even given the chance. The cook tells me he has not gone to her for over two years now!”
“But lucky you. If she was also in on his time, you would be sitting here weeping your eyes out for longer stretches of time.”
“That’s enough, Kali. Leave.”
The Ranisab was angry at the truth. She was angry at the daring of the puny servant girl who was nothing but ribs and elbows and large white teeth, white like the rest of her. She wondered who would name such a fair girl Kali, black.
She knew she was losing. There was a brief stretch of time when she was the only one he came to, and she thought that would last. She wondered what went wrong. She started rubbing aloe into the roots of her hair. She began oiling her skin brown under the shine of the sun. She made Kali bring fresh milk to her every morning, so that she could wash her face in the whiteness. The Ranisab was born dark, and she tried to scrub the pigment away from her face, scrub it, peal it, wash it away. Maybe he left because she became too dark for him in the midst all the white glory of his power.
Many years after the event, she let her color in through the back door and kept it as a showpiece at the very front of her pride. He used to be hers, once; he used to be hers.
I was never white. There was no fair in me, no slice of moon or tail of star. I was the dark one, the keeper of the darkest night. And so he came to me when there was no moon and the house lost its shine and dew was thick like syrup over black grass. He came to me, and he was mine, he was mine till dawn showed my color and his larger other-life.
And here she cackled toothlessly and toothlessly bore her triumph while the bun on her head loosened itself and her hair spilled like milk unto the ground.
Kali Ranisab has been taking nighttime walks around the garden, flapping her arms, cracking bones and knuckles by her side like an aged bird. She has begun chanting prayers to all four directions during sunset, joining palms to pink skies of the North, then West, then South, then East. Some nights, when the moon comes out full-faced behind clouds, she wraps her white widow’s sari about her naked body and walks into the night with lamps balanced on her open outstretched palms. She takes a step at a time, walking deeper into the garden, deeper, till the smell of jasmine grows so strong it wraps like a shawl. She takes one step at a time, lamps firing on open palms, till she reaches the pipal tree at the centre of the garden. And then she circles the tree, whispering her prayers to the night, whispering her prayers to the soft breeze combing though the leaves, to the clouds silently sliding over the white faced moon.
The Ranisab has forgotten what exactly happened, the chronology of the whole thing, the way it was supposed to have happened. But the orange liquid plays with time in her head, and she no longer knows what came first, or what second, but there were two events, so interlinked, so coincidental, it could have been one event. She cannot remember.
All she remembers is waking up one morning with her guts wrenching themselves out her mouth and she ran to her night pot and thought she was puking out her life and the cooling leaves fell from her forehead and covered her eyes and momentarily she thought she was going blind, she was dying from the pain in her heart and the pain in her belly. And she threw up the next morning and the next and then she noticed her missed bleeding—Kali, what is happening to me?
And Kali had her thirteen-year-old lips pressed in a thin straight line.
“You are pregnant, Ranisab, and I think it must be a boy.”
“But how can it be… I cannot imagine… could I really?”
“Yes, you are expecting, Ranisab.”
“Why do you say it will be a boy?”
“Because you puke like a sick dog and soon enough, somebody is going to start kicking you hard from the inside. Only boys are strong enough for such things. It starts from the seed. You are going to have a son. Should I get you water?”
“No, wait. Wait,” and the Ranisab clasped the servant girl with a puke-stained hand, “Wait, you must not tell anybody of this, not yet, you understand me? Not yet.&rdquot; And there was wild fear in her eyes and her lips were trembling.
“Keep that mouth of yours shut for a while.”
And though she muffled the sounds of her pregnancy, though she awoke an hour earlier in the mornings and disappeared into the gardens, retching in privacy among the jasmine, somehow somebody found out. They came to her one night, held her by her long hair on the darkest of nights and someone broke the covers away from her clenched fists, someone pulled her pillow over her face, someone beat her in the belly again and again till she bled black blood onto the pillow covering her face and dropped a piece of life from her body. They knew it was a question of inheritance and property and power. They knew she was going to have a son. The only other son.
Long after the event, she still spent eternity drenched in her own seeping blood on the bed and the smell of nighttime jasmine came through the open windows. Night turned to day, and other smells came into the air. Day moved to night and the jasmine came back through the window.
Kali came every dawn and wept by her bed. She soaked cloths with cool water and washed her and controlled the blood and told her things would be ok. She brought her fruit and milk and rice pudding and then she leveled her voice down to a slight whisper and half covered her mouth with her hand.
“The cook says it was the Maharani, she had her suspicions, you know, you were his favorite for a long time. Even the walls have ears here, someone must have heard because I did not tell a soul. Not a soul. But things will repay themselves, just wait and see, that is the way of the world, that is God’s way. He will bring you justice. But you should not think about this subject anymore. And it should never be mentioned. The Maharani knows too much about politics. She is too smart, that woman.”
And in her delirium, the Ranisab equated God with Him, and she kept moaning that he would never come. He would never come.
The Ranisab’s body repaired itself after a couple of weeks. She started walking without bleeding, eating without throwing up, breathing without hurting. She started sitting by her window for long stretches of time, looking at hills grow in the horizon.
And it was at the window, at a time when all the other maids and manservants were at their meals, the smell of rice coming and filling the room, that she heard a muffled cackle rise from the gardens. The Ranisab cocked her head, thought a thought, bent over the window and looked down at the paths laid in stone meandering through jasmine and rose and peach tree. And there, half hidden behind shrubs and trees, she saw the white arms of Rita, supple in their youth, and the general was unwinding the sari from her flat-chested body, turning her round and round like a top while the bright cloth curled in a ripple at their feet. Rita was laughing, letting the ducks of her glee lift off wildly into the afternoon, and the tears came down the Ranisab’s face till they choked her like a mouth full of feathers.
Something fell from her soul and the Ranisab went to find it. She went to her Gods, Kali, Shiva, Ram, portraits hanging large as life from her walls. They stared back at her. She went to the priests who talked of God as Love. She went to the old nurses, who talked of the universe in seven layers, and, “There is a place of fire four layers below this earth, and sometimes, during earthquakes, the earth belches out fire and fish,” one old hag told her. The other one turned to her friend with a frown deepening her wrinkles, “Are you sure it is fire? I heard that during the Big earthquake, boiled water frothed from the earth like it was a kettle and then there were fish.” So the Ranisab went to find her own God.
She found her God in the room of an old nursemaid who had wrinkled up and dried like black raisin, and the Ranisab found comfort in her dark skin.
“Sometimes,” the old woman said, lifting her eyes slowly up to the Ranisab’s face, and the Ranisab realized with a shock that the old woman’s eyes were light blue and milk white, “you need to search on the other side. Sometimes you need outside help. Sometimes you need to interrupt fate.”
And her blue milk eyes seemed to spear their transparency into the Ranisab’s body. She felt like someone was stealing her soul.
“Come, I will show you something,” and the old woman hobbled, her bones cracking and breaking, to an old wooden shelf with knife scars and from inside its darkness she pulled a round black stone that seemed to be a part of the shelf itself. It stood in sharp contrast to her white widow’s sari.
“You see this? This holds the power, Ranisab. It is the only thing stable and life revolves round it. It fell from the sky one night, broke through the window in the storm and landed right here on my lap. It was meant to be. So I did not fight it. I used it instead.”
“What is it?” the Ranisab asked, gently cradling the small roundness in the palm of her hand. She was surprised at its heaviness.
“It is a vessel, hajur. You need to take care of it like you would a temple. You need to offer it fruit and blood. You need to feed it sacrifice to keep it happy. And then only will it let you use it.”
The Ranisab felt weak and she looked up at the old woman for comprehension.
“It is the home of the spirit, hajur. It is the home of him. And he is very powerful. Make him happy, and he will do you favors. Special favors. He will make things right. It is called tantric magic, hajur, and through him, through this stone, you will have tantric powers. Use it well.”
The Ranisab had heard of this before, and like a child who has touched something hot, she withdrew her hands in a hurry, dropping the stone, letting it roll on the floor, her eyes wide and frightened. The old woman bent down and picked it up almost immediately, impossibly fast for her stooped back and her bones cracking, crumbling.
“Never misuse it, hajur. Never make it angry. Never.”
And the blue whiteness of the woman’s eyes were angry at the Ranisab. They took time to soften, and after a lengthened silence, after the Ranisab swallowed and swallowed and did not know which way to look, the woman turned and looked tired.
“You must make out of life what you can, hajur. Or else there is no life. Do not let other people smother you while you sleep. You must wake up, hajur. Especially after what happened to you, especially you.”
The Ranisab fell for the power of the stone. She fell into its binds and felt revived, felt the flow of strength through her veins, felt the foolishness and brash confidence of youth and power. The general returned to her room, and suddenly he became a child to her. He became her puppet. She kept the stone in a safe place, and prayed to it everyday, and offered it milk and fruits and blood of goat, and it answered her wishes. The spirit inside made the general fall in love with her, fall in love like he had never done so before, fall so that he showed up late for his only son’s wedding, fell off his horse, forgot his meals.
But Kali resisted. She clung to what had been hers for a few minutes in the garden, naked in the garden smelling of love and jasmine and power. She came to the Ranisab grinding her jaws and pinched her accidentally while massaging her legs. She accidentally let the cat rip one of the Ranisab’s favorite saris. She constantly dreamt of accidentally killing the Ranisab in her sleep. Kali never guessed and was surprised how things had not gone her way. She felt weak.
And the Ranisab saw and felt glee but pretended not to notice.
But then the Ranisab would wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night, screaming, feeling a tear grow in her belly, and she would hear voices in her dreams, voices of babies calling to her, Mother Mother Where Are You Mother? And she would remember the piece of flesh that was her own that was a part of her that was a part of life that she lost. And there would grow anger in her belly, anger filling up the hole, anger so strong it made her forget to breathe till she turned blue.
Even the walls have ears, but you told.
The Ranisab scarified a black chicken to the stone. She did it by herself. She let the blood shoot out and sprayed the room with the redness. Then she took out the strand of hair, the piece of cloth, the broken piece of bangle that all belonged to Kali, that she had collected over weeks of purpose. She did her dark magic. Kali fell into the fever that night. She never woke the next morning.
A month passed. Mother Mother Where Are You Mother, the dreams came back. They entered through the unconscious back door of the Ranisab’s mind and lingered there. Then they moved. They came to her when she was awake, and she would drop things in the middle of the day, screaming, crying. They got longer, fleshed out, took color.
Mother Mother Where Are You Mother, but this time it was not the piece of flesh lost from her body that was calling to her. This time it was Kali, thirteen-year-old Kali with her flat chest and white elbows, a girl with dirt under her nails, ducks in her throat and dreams in her eyes.
The Ranisab ran up to her room, threw open the door, dug the stone out. “Why?!” she screamed, “Why,” and she threw the stone at the window, sent it crashing through the glass into the jasmine climbing thick and white up the side of the building. She looked up at the skies and called out. She called out to the dead nursemaid. She called out to know what to do.
Things started to go wrong. She could feel his presence in the room, feel the power move from room to room in the house, searching for blood. People started to get sick: the maids, the servants, the children, the dogs. The general lost weight and stopped coming. He locked himself for two weeks in his room after his favorite horse died standing up in the stables. The Ranisab wept hard, wept the nights away, wept because she could not find the stone. She came out of the jasmine creepers with scratches along her arms and there were thick strands of her hair stuck to leaves and cut-off branches. She had the look of a mad dog. She had the plant uprooted. She could not redirect fate. She was to blame, and she feared, feared like she had never done so before.
It was when the presence started to take on the shape of a thin black shadow that the Ranisab picked up her bottle of orange liquid and fell into a drunken stupor for three days, three nights. The shadow passed around her, moving along the walls, and the Ranisab no longer knew if it was real. She could feel the orange liquid in her mind and thought she was drowning. She was being sucked away, down, breaking through layers of dirt, past layers of snakes and earthworms and beetles, down into the other layers of the universe. One night she woke up yelling because she had felt fire and knew she had been pulled all the way into the fourth layer, from where fire burst forth and boiling water and fish with small heavy black stones for eyes. And she could see the thin white face of Kali crying, Mother Mother What Have You Done Mother. My Mother. And the Ranisab drank more to wash away the dreams.
I must make him leave. I brought him here, and I will take him out. I will stop the hurting. I will fix fate.
The Ranisab trips over her own feet. The orange liquid makes her feel like she is moving through water. Her movements come in slow motion. Her hair has lost all color, has become white like milk. Her face has grown darker, crumpled up like a black raisin. She does not care. All she remembers is he came to her in the darkest of nights and she was his. She wears a white widow’s sari. The general died seven days ago.
She stands at the centre of the room so that the flees won’t get to her. She has heard stories about this room, and the stories have come to her, swimming in her mind swimming in liquid orange. She knows of the flees that came one night, and she sees them, moving under the cow dung mud. She feels an itching at her scalp.
She looks around the room. The black shelf with knife scars is still standing there, as it had all those years ago. She remembers the blue milk eyes of the dead nursemaid.
This is the womb from where the black stone was taken. This is where his power lies.
And she stands there at its center, the orange liquid playing in her mind making the floor walls ceiling move. She stands there with a black chicken in her hand, the bird screeching, clawing, thrashing.
I will undo what I did before.
The Ranisab sways. The crooked window does not let in the mountains outside, white and blue. There are tears choking her like a mouthful of feathers.