Shanti rises in the dark, feeling it knit around her, crackling like dry wool. She shuffles out of the small house, not wanting to wake her dreaming daughter. Her heart begins to batter against her ribs. But she only presses forward more deliberately, slightly out of breath, placing one shrivelled foot before the other, until she crosses the threshold to feel the dew moisten her face.
Thick dark stains the skies over the Madras Presidency. The scent of jasmine floats, while birds invoke the morning light. Shanti’s eyes moisten at the thought of how far her silences have driven her only child from her. How cruel I have become in my old age, she thinks. She is a small, stubborn blot on the night now, the scratch of sand between her ginger-gnarled toes. Day will soon bleach the horizon. And she will face the coming dawn, despite the fear she has carried for more than thirty summers. Dawn has always brought loss. And yet this sunrise feels restorative. The charred sky catches its new flame. She reaches for its warmth, its peace, whatever forgiveness it might offer. And as the first surge of daylight spills across the sky, Shanti stands beneath it with the eyes of a child, drinking it in. Port Natal is suddenly with her – the same gash of sky, the smell of cut cane at daybreak, the hands, the faces, the voices that have lived inside her for decades.
Memory lives in light, she thinks. Benevolence and redemption, too. But light illuminates all – even the darkened hollows. The sundials’ mad circles have slowed, and the time for concealment has run out. Secrets are wild birds. They cannot be held captive forever. Lying awake, Raksha hears the tiny sounds of her mother’s distress, and rises to go to her and lead her indoors.
“What is the matter, Ama?” She speaks softly. “Why were you standing outside crying?”
Shanti is silent.
“You never rise so early. What is wrong?”
Shanti shakes her head and mutters an apology for waking her daughter, but Raksha sleeps only fitfully, as she has every night for nearly two years now.
Raksha’s obsession has set her adrift from Shanti. But it is life’s way. Children grow and separate from their parents. Shanti must accept that Raksha is no longer that effusive little girl running home to spill the day’s news. And yet she treasures the memory of the almighty leap into her mother’s lap for storytime: anticipating the poems Shanti set dancing in her little ears, the resonance of songs her mother had brought back from across the ocean.
Sometimes Raksha still hears the echo of their boisterous laughter at silly jokes, or the splash of her swimming lessons at the lake. How silent their home has become. But Raksha cannot trade that silence for the battlefield her home will become if she shares her secret. These days, Shanti is prone to fits of temper or withdrawal into isolation. Her mind swings between lucidity and forgetfulness. This is the way of growing old. And when one’s parent strays, it is a daughter’s duty to guide her back, stay and care for her, be a mother to a mother, if needs be.
And so Raksha deals with her inner conflict alone. How could she possibly explain to her mother how unexpectedly it happened? How he had flowed into her life and crystallised there. Raksha often recalls that blistering afternoon near the lake, that first fateful meeting. She had raised her pallu, the edge of her sari sash, to dab her face, and when she dropped the cloth, there he was in front of her. He’d offered her a glass of water, tried to make conversation. She’d shaken her head and refused, even though she was parched. One did not accept charity from the British.
But in the ensuing days, she’d found herself passing his house again, glancing into his garden. And he was always there in the sunshine, often reading a book, seated at a simple table with two chairs. He would get up and walk to the fence to smile and greet her each time.
She should never have gone swimming in the lake. Possessed by something other than good sense, she’d dropped her basket at the shore one day, unravelling her sari in the shimmering heat while dipping first one foot, then the other, ever deeper in the water. The burning sun on her back drove her further in until she was almost submerged. She turned to look at the swathe of fabric, lying serpentine at the water’s edge, while the lake enveloped her, cajoling, rippling around her form. And then she’d felt his eyes on her body as she’d waded deeper. After a few minutes, he’d called out to ask if he might enter the water. She’d laughed. “Do as you please,” she had said. “The water is yours, as the land is yours.” He had flushed and lowered his head, then slowly begun removing his shirt.
He entered the water tentatively, paddling until the lake swallowed him and spat him out closer to her. “I am David,” he said.
She swam away. But the water conspired to stir up a current that drew them closer. And she soon became aware of his proximity, the poetry of their bodies as they swam. It was forbidden, audacious and playful, limbs arcing, then outstretched, glazed water splintering then reconstituting, rushing and alert in their wake, their quiet laughter ricocheting off the banks.
Raksha felt herself coming undone. She turned, swam to the lake’s edge and bounded out of the water, hastily winding her sari around her, wringing her hair, then running breathlessly for home. What had she done?
Excerpted with permission from Children of Sugarcane, Joanne Joseph, Penguin.