Merlyn Coutinho’s life turned on its head the day she found several half-eaten chikus strewn around her backyard. From then on, fallen fruits had become a common sight in her garden.
Once every week, on a Monday, the maali came to help her trim the shrubs that she reared behind her ground-floor home at Bosco Mansion. He’d pile them up in his lopsided garden cart and dump them at the nearby municipal garbage dump for an extra twenty rupees. The state of her fruits broke Merlyn’s heart.
Only a fortunate few in Pope’s Colony had a backyard to call their own and Merlyn made sure she used hers to the hilt, converting it into an ornamental green lung where rose mallows, petunias and periwinkles grew alongside potted tomatoes, brinjals and chillies. Her most prized plant, however, was the waywardly growing gigantic chiku tree, an heirloom which had now become a sore point between Merlyn and her husband Michael, who she suspected had a role to play in the gruesome murder of her fruits.
“You ate my chikus, na? Tell me... tell me, re. Give me an answer,” Merlyn would say.
“Foolish lady, you have gone mad,” was how her scowling husband responded, mostly.
Merlyn’s suspicions had first taken root when she caught her husband red-handed, plucking fruits from the tree. In his defence, Michael had only interfered in his wife’s gardening chores because a particular bunch of over-ripe chikus had overwhelmed the house with its unpleasant, fermenting scent. He had always been allergic to rotting smells and hated this one the most. The only reason he chose to keep this from his wife was that he found it too silly an issue to bother her with.
So when the irritation in his nostrils got extremely severe, he decided it was time to nip it in the bud. Sometime after the couple had eaten lunch and Merlyn had gone to her room to take a nap, he went to the backyard to trace the source of the rot. Little did he know that his wife, who was hell-bent on getting hold of the culprit behind the killing of her fruits, had followed him out and was surreptitiously watching him from the kitchen that overlooked the backyard.
After going around in circles for several minutes, Michael had found the problematic cluster. Hanging loosely from a branch that bent towards the kitchen window, this squashed bunch of chikus had been infested by a horde of flies.
He got hold of a creaky wooden ladder and carefully climbed up one step at a time. When he was close enough, he knifed the bunch and let the fruits drop. He had wanted to throw the chikus away, but Merlyn had rushed out by then. She had found a culprit for the fruits that were disappearing from her tree and falling to the ground.
“I knew it. I knew it...haav zannam,” she yelled as Michael clambered down the ladder.
“Knew what?” he asked, surprised.
“That you are killing my chikus,” she said.
“No, I didn’t,” he said brusquely.
Though he had flatly denied any involvement, from that day on his wife had turned into an annoying nag – reminding him every day of how he had ruined her backyard by first wantonly biting into her “precious” chikus and then throwing them back into the garden. One night, she tried picking a fight with him while he was struggling to sleep. That was when Michael lost his cool. He refused to play to his wife’s whims and fancies, packed his clothes into his black VIP suitcase and immediately left for his parents’ home. The house was on the floor right above theirs, so logistically at least, it seemed like a very sound move for that hour of the night.
It had been fourteen weeks since he moved out. Since his parents had long passed away, Michael now lived with his widowed sister Annette in their family home. The two had never got along, even as kids, and Michael’s return had made things worse. Their squabbles could be heard all through the day. Every resident in 193-A, Bosco Mansion was privy to their fights – thanks to the building’s wooden exterior, which did not allow for any sound-proofing.
But the full-blown arguments with his sister aside, Michael didn’t consider going back to his wife of forty-five years anytime soon. He was tired, not with her as much as with the idea of living with her. Over the last ten years or so, especially after their kids had moved to Canada, Merlyn’s universe had shrunk considerably. Her life now revolved only around her garden, husband and home. She had no friends, except for her neighbour Ellena and his sister Annette, both of whom he detested. This insular life that she found comfort in had made her so myopic that she could no longer see things for what they were.
His children, Ryan and Sarah, were aghast that their parents had even considered separation at this age, and that too, over a chiku tree.
“Please don’t embarrass us,” Ryan told his dad over the phone.
“Take your mum to Canada, live with her for forty-five years and then do all this patronising talk,” Michael said, irritated.
Merlyn too had made zero attempts to mend the broken ties, more because even after he had left home, the half-eaten chikus hadn’t stopped popping down from her tree.
She vented to Laxmi, her maid, in broken Hindi saying, “Hamara aadmi still nikalos chikus upar se. You know, he eats them thoda and throws them neeche. Mere ko bahut trouble karta.”
Merlyn had invented this ingenious mish mash of Hindi and English – two languages she was not comfortable speaking – to converse with her maid. Though mostly incomprehensible, it helped communicate the little details that mattered and got the job done. “Khana cook karne ko hain.” “Do the jhadoo.” “Hamara tea banao.” “Kapda saabun main dip karo please.” “Water bageecha main pheko.” The list was endless.
Sometimes Merlyn stretched her absurd language experiments slightly, using fuller, longer sentences. But Laxmi had smartened up. Today, for instance, she was able to conclude that Michael saab had been up to some mischief. She pacified her memsaab by suggesting, once again, that her husband be taken to a tantrik who would exorcise him.
In an ideal situation, Merlyn would never have considered a witch doctor. But Michael’s twisted and unforgivable chiku-eating habits had left many a knot in her mind. Why did he steal the fruits when he could simply ask Merlyn to pluck them for him? Why did he only gnaw at half the fruit? Why did he throw the half-eaten chikus in the backyard when there was a garbage bin at home?
Excerpted with permission from the story “The Exorcism of Michael Coutinho”, from Bombay Balchao, Jane Borges, Tranquebar.