Friday, September 01, 2006

THER: Chapter 1

The plane inches its way along like a deliberate needle in someone’s sluggish bloodstream. With eyes shut in the darkness, Neeru thinks of the relief with which she will hand over the two navy blue passports--the Indian one hers, the American one her son’s--to the official at the Chennai airport. A moment of homecoming.

Actually the last time she had done that, the man at the counter had insisted that Amul’s passport was invalid because it wasn’t signed—and Amul had been just nine months old then. She wondered whether the man expected her to pay him something, decided not, and faked meek and stupid to explain to the man, “Look, he’s just a baby, he doesn’t write--or read--yet.” Mahesh had been with her that time and had first looked at her with unbelieving horror before trying to look away and control his laughter.

“You should have signed it before,” the passport official growled, slicing the space in front of her neck with the baby’s passport.
“I’ll sign it now,” she offered meekly.
“You should have signed it before” he maintained.
Ultimately convinced by the restlessness of the crowd behind her, he reluctantly returned the passport for her to sign and waved her through with a smug and stately wave. You may have traveled abroad but I know more about traveling he might have said.

But this time the passport was signed, and hadn’t yet been handed over to the airport man. Amul was sleeping soundly though still assiduously kicking away her efforts to cover him up from the chilled airplane air. She looked at him and brushed his hair back with a firm stroke well into his hairline—he always plumbed deeper into sleep sometimes smiling or whimpering in delight when she did that.

In her sleep, sometimes when he woke her up with an urgent “Ammu”, she would wonder who and where the baby who wanted his mother was. Then she would remember, she was the Ammu, the baby hers. “I need to be dressed” she thought, “in a sari.” That’s what mothers wore. She remembered seeing an Indian woman, young—twentyish with a five-year-old son on a bus in Oxford. The woman wore a lightly colored, floaty sari over a contrasting short blouse and wore kumkum on her forehead and in her part. There was no other color on her face and she was beautiful enough not to need any. She talked to her son casually, not overly interested like the other mums, and didn’t make eye contact though Neeru tried very hard. Neeru somehow felt that when she was a mother she would wear some kind of floaty beautiful sari and wipe away her baby’s tears with the soft end of the pallu that would softly smell of healthy vegetarian food.

Neeru goes to sleep easily and eagerly hoping to look fresh and carefree to her parents at the airport. But when she wakes up her eyes are puffy. “Can you watch him?” she asks of the stewardess; she says “him” on a soft elevation wanting the stewardess to know he was lovely, fun, and special though he was sleeping and therefore also easy to watch.

She splashes airline water in her eyes. It seems static not flowing through miles of pipes or rivers but merely an overhead tank. She practices a smile: Pleased, dazzling, thrilled to be here. Creases her eyes as she thinks ahead to hugging deliriously.

“I’m not tired!’”
“Amul slept a lot.”
“Oh Mahesh is fine.”
"His job is going well.”
“He’s so busy you know.”
She practices.

She practices also, “Thank you for watching him” and delivers it neatly to the stewardess. Somehow, it's important that the stewardess thinks that she and her son are lovely and no trouble at all, deserving of all the kindnesses that airplane staff perform for parents with young children.

Amul burrows his sleepy two-year-old body closer to her and she wakes him up, “Hey, wanna cuddle?”

“Kull!” he assents, and opens alert eyes waiting for her to pass her hands over him and say “hey, you know I love you from the top of your head to your spiky hair, down these kissy cheeks, this stomping heart, this empty tummy, this bumpy bottom, these knobby knees, these funny ankles... all the way to the bottom of your feet.”

So she does, and then they read his Caillou book and the brown bear book and she brings out three novelties (twelve linking monkeys, a magic drawing board, and a set of inch high construction trucks). She bought all these treats at the dollar store stashed them away for their ability to distract. She brings them out one by one from a huge backpack.

Soon enough the plane lands: all the patchwork colors grow into recognizable objects, the insecticide sprayed in a magic mist before the doors are levered open. The presenting of the passports passes quickly and unmemorably because there is no anecdote-worthy hitch. There are in the big arrival hall now. She looks just a little bit fragile in the huge backpack filled mostly with Amul’s comforter. And she has practiced for the moment well. Amul is wearing long trousers despite the Chennai heat so he looks adorably grown up. They have practiced recognizing photos of his grandparents for months. So when her parents, the eager grandparents, are allowed to bypass security, Amul performs. "Thatha," he yells pointing and "Ammama." And he politely allows himself to be kissed and then squeezed and pinched and hugged.

“Like an arrow, my boy,” says her father. He means Amul has an unerring aim, is straight as an arrow in his recognition of his grandparents. He has just the two daughters and Neeru and her sister Nischu have wondered if the parents wanted boys after all.

“Like an arrow he came straight to me.”

Amul is enjoying all the attention and praise and loving and Neeru finds a moment to say her piece unasked:
“I’m not tired!’”
“Amul slept a lot.”
“Oh, Mahesh is fine.”
“His job is going well.”
“He’s so busy you know.”


Her parents are so happy to see her. Touching her face, her arm constantly. Asking questions to the answers she has given them already.
“Are you tired Kanna?
How did you travel all alone with Amul?
Will He join you later?

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