We returned to Bombay from the hills. We eased ourselves into a home.
For me, home was synonymous with an old open chest. I can still see it, made of oak or cedar or mahogany – expensive wood – buffed, lacquered, waxed. Inside, there were clothes – blue cardigans, black turtlenecks, a grey sweater – that Daddy wore during family breaks, those scrupulously planned trips to the hills.
When I was little, small enough to curl into a cannonball, I’d steal into this chest, belly first, drop in with a plop. It was like falling headlong into a pit, except instead of earth-damp-rot, there’d be mohair, smooth like Rapunzel hair, and flannel, snug and floppy, and homespun wool, bristly to touch.
I recall the smells held within the garments – a faint mustiness; the pungency of mothballs; orange and nutmeg, perhaps Old Spice. And that scent, peculiar, eclipsing all else – oils off abandoned paintings, charcoal, ink – a scent of all-that-no-longer-was.
The chest had been placed in a tiny waiting room, so it looked out into our lawn, the street, a world of work. The waiting room in turn was a part of a larger structure, an isolated, single-storey bungalow in Goregaon.
In this space, Mamma fixed her family and the things she owned. The cabinets were nailed into the walls. The curtains, starched and taut, were pulled across the windows. The dining chairs were set, each for a designated member of the household – Daddy at the head of the table; Mamma, watchful, opposite; Ranja to her right; Tasha, as always, next to Daddy, cheek jammed against his elbow. Envious, I’d sit by his free arm. Here’s where we’d share meals.
On Sundays though, there’d be a shift – butter-smooth and timed. The chairs would slink into the well-tended lawn, the plates would line up on a bedspread, the fruits would start arranging themselves perfectly in bowls. We’d gather post-haste, feast, pose, slumber.
It must have been a Sunday, post-lunch, the three hours designated for play and rest and photographs. After staring self-consciously for a picture, I imagine I slid past the door, into the waiting room, and then towards the chest of woollies. I plopped in and pressed an eye against a wide crack.
The afternoon was dying, I could tell, for the light slipped in obliquely. Before me, there was the lawn, manicured and torpid. Tasha was there, all of four, studying-picking-chewing overripe plums. Ranja, lady-like, was dipping her spoon into a bowlful of purée. Mamma was, as always, a streak of colour, magenta or lilac or mauve, whizzing in-out, out-in, never still. And Daddy – Daddy was somewhere, in the garage or in the backyard or on the telephone, decidedly beyond the crack’s purview. Unknowable.
I looked away from the scene before me and dived into the chest, so I was ensconced in clothes, warm, too warm to touch. There were lives to live within the folds of garments, secret ones, and these I had learnt to slip into. Wrapped in wool, I could be Gretel with green eyes, Goldilocks with untangled hair, even the Snow Queen studying sky atlases. But mostly I imagined I was in a space of harmony.
Such peace, touchable-close within the chest, had been absent outside for as long as I could recall.
It must have been a week prior to my swoop into the chest – and just days after our vacation in Khandala. To my five-year-old mind, much of the episode was unclear – there were no images. But I registered voices, those of my parents, denied kindness or pliancy, rough as burrs, as nothing I had ever known.
“Don’t you dare.”
“I will not let – ”
“See you later.” The jangle of keys. “Where are you going?”
“Don’t even – ”
A door opening-slamming, a car screeching past the gate, a sob. And Mamma, now angry, stomping into the room Tasha and I were in, and accusing her youngest daughter.
“You’re on your father’s side, aren’t you?”
“No.” A lie.
“She isn’t.” Always. Me. Springing to Tasha’s defence.
“And you, too.”
“You think he is right.”
The hum of a hand swishing, hitting against skin. I don’t think I sensed it, sensed anything. I was collecting sound.
The week passed. It was Sunday.
I slipped deep into the chest, then peeked once more through the wide crack. The lawn outside, my sisters, their play, Mamma’s haste – these were all at once obscured by a kneeling figure, tall (or not), lithe, with hair that was black and forest-dense.
I do not know how he got there – he just did, he slunk in, so now he was sitting, his body limp, his lips pursed, his skin luminous and wet. That’s when I noticed his eyes hidden beneath his brows. Moist.
I had never seen Daddy cry. I didn’t think he could summon up water, salt, sorrow.
I must have been concerned, for I stood up on unsteady feet on his clothes. They sank beneath my weight, and Daddy leapt, startled by the rustle. He saw me emerge, head first, and reached out for me. He must’ve sensed my fear – coarse, a tactile thing – for he asked soft, too soft, “Deeba?”
It was the day I was the most beloved. Deeba. His.
Daddy pressed his cheek against my own, whispered, “Is it nice in the box?”
I must have nodded, for Daddy went on, “Tell me, Deeba. Tell me. Tell me it’s in there. A life, a real one.”
I traced the trail of wet on Daddy’s cheek. He smiled, murmured, “It is raining somewhere.”
And I, half-child, I came to half-believe. “Rain.”
Daddy stood up, wrapped his arms around my body, drew me out, so I smelt him everywhere, in the box that was, against his shirt, above. He threw me into the air, caught me twice, once, thrice. I laughed. My stomach lurched to my heart. My heart safe in his hands.
That night, Daddy left.
Excerpted with permission from These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light, Dharini Bhaskar, Hachette India.