When the fog got in, the mothers were making the rotis for dinner. My mother, because she was younger and less important, did the harder job of rolling out the dough into perfect circles. Usha’s mother, who I called Other-mother, got to stand in the warm aura of the stove’s blue flame while she roasted the perfect discs on the iron thawa. Roll, roast, flip, next: I thought of the mothers as one joined roti-making machine. Usha and I were waiting for our usual treat, a fresh, buttered, sugar-sprinkled roti each. But then our grandmother bellowed from upstairs.
[img_assist|nid=7421|title=Over the Hills by Liz Nicklus© 2011|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=300|height=104]“Who let all the fog into my room?” demanded Ba.
Fog? There wasn’t any fog outside; it was a sun-shiny autumn day. The mothers—faces tight with fear—stopped what they were doing. We all ran to Ba.
“Come and shut the windows!” yelled our grandmother. “Get the fog out!”
“Ba!” shrieked my mother. “What are you talking about? What happened?”
Other-mother took Ba into her arms. My mother said something about an ambulance and raced back downstairs.
“Oh Bhagwan, Bhagwan!” cried Ba, calling to God. She pushed Other-mother away. “I can’t see you.” Then, she curled up on the floor and rocked and keened, terrified that the fog would not leave her room. The fog didn’t leave. Her diabetes had made Ba blind.
Usha and I were the daughters of Ba’s two sons, who lived together as they might have in India, dutifully, under one roof with their wives and children, a son and a daughter each. Except that, we weren’t in India. We lived in England, in an old Victorian row house. I knew that the children belonged to different parents, but it didn’t matter much. Less than a year apart, Usha and I were almost-twins.
Like everyone else in the family, we were afraid of Ba, even more so now that she was the first blind person we knew. Still, because it rained so much and we were stuck inside so often, sometimes we’d creep into her room to see how long it would take her to figure out someone was there. Once, during a long wet spell, we went too far.
“Who’s there? Speak!” called Ba. We sat quietly, out of arms reach. As she pulled the sheet around her, a strip of grandmother flesh appeared between the bottom of her sari blouse and the beginning of her petticoat. She began to snore. Usha and I looked at each other, a laugh threatening to expose us. But instead of laughing, the both of us reached out and at the same time, quick and sure and hard, we pinched Ba.
“Aarrreh!” she yelled.
We ran out and then, deviously, joined the general stampede of people coming towards Ba’s room.
“They came to suck my blood, what is left of it in my poor fragile body!”
“What happened?” stormed my father.
“The girls! The useless extra mouths we’re feeding. Who will take such she-devils off our hands, who?”
Suddenly a slap came so hard and so fast across my face that my ear began to ring. Usha’s father, who I knew as Big-Father, still had his hand raised in fury. I began to cry and braced myself for more. Instead, I heard a voice like cold water.
“Don’t touch her,” said my mother. “You have no right.”
It was an insurrection–words spoken out of the usual order of things. Big-Father said nothing, but he let his hand drop. Up until this single exact moment, I had never heard my mother speak directly to Big-Father. Ordinarily, when he walked into a room, she would fall silent and cover her head with the loose end of her sari, looking out at the world through a thin, cottony fog.
“Bas!” said my father, meaning enough. I knew my mother was in trouble and that I should stop crying for her sake. But I couldn’t. Worse still, I fell to the floor, and surrendered to the kind of tantrum I hadn’t had in some time. Ba spoke deliberately.
“Why complain about your wife when you can’t control your own daughter?”
My father pulled me up with a tug, his thumb poking into my armpit.
“Ask your grandmother for forgiveness,” he growled. “And show your respect properly,” meaning that I should touch her foot when I spoke.
I got very close to my grandmother’s sour foot and mumbled a near “sorry” but I did not touch it. The diabetes was so bad by then that she couldn’t tell the difference.
“Good girl,” said my father.
When it was winter, they took Ba to the hospital. Baby-uncle, Ba’s youngest son who lived in Florida, flew in to see his mother. Soon after, a doctor called the house and said we should all come to the hospital. When we got there, Ba asked us one by one to forgive her. The oldest grandson sobbed like a baby, the mothers wept freely; noses were blown frequently. I was surrounded by the sounds of my family in grief. A witch-thin nurse came by and snapped the curtain around us.
“Quiet, please,” she spat, and then muttered, “Pakis always bring the whole damn tribe.” She left in a huff.
“Hey!” Baby-uncle barked, but she was long gone. “We’re Hindus not Pakis!”
“Brown is brown. We’re all Taliban now,” said Big-Father.
“How do you stand this country?” continued Baby-Uncle.
“Please, you’re Al Qaeda to the Americans, too” said Big-Father.
“America’s different,” said Baby-Uncle.
“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” said my father, meaning only that it was time to drop it. The nurse came back.
“I can’t move in here,” she said. “Some of you will have to leave.”
Being the least important, Usha and I hadn’t yet had our forgiveness turns. Ba lifted her finger to let us know she needed someone to move her breathing mask.
“Leave the monkeys here,” she said. Our mothers left us with the men and took the sons home with them. When it was my turn with Ba, I looked at her grey, unseeing eyes, and thought that I should ask for her forgiveness, too. But I didn’t and neither did Usha.
Big-Father began to sing a bhajan quietly and his brothers joined in.
“Govinda hare bole, Gopala bole.”
[img_assist|nid=7422|title=Dia de los Muertos by Paul McMillan© 2011|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=250|height=203]Usha and I clapped along gently. Each verse seemed to take lines off Ba’s face. When we were done, she raised the mask herself, smiled, and said she wanted peaches. Couldn’t someone get her some peaches? The nurse said that the kitchen was closed, and that there were only canned peaches there, and anyway, rules were rules. She left us alone. It was January, damp and cold. Fog hung thickly between the streetlights. Ba wanted real peaches. It was impossible.
“We’ll go,” Big-Father said, and he and Baby-uncle left. Usha and I fell asleep sitting on a leg each of my father’s lap.
I woke to the stamping sound of feet trying to get warm. Usha was awake, too. The peaches had arrived! There was a whole wooden crate with the words “Product of New Zealand” stamped on it. My father got up, stood us on the floor, and offered the chair for the crate. The nurse stepped in to check on all the noise. Big-Father spoke to her in his most polite talking-to-white-people voice.
“May we kindly get something to open the crate?” he asked.
“All right,” she said, probably staggered by the sight and smell of fresh peaches to say anything else. She came back with a screwdriver and a paring knife. No one said anything for a while and Usha and I knew to be quiet.
“Ba, we have peaches,” said Big-Father, taking the screwdriver. I could smell their perfume. I knew Usha wanted one as much as I did but we didn’t dare ask.
“I’ll get some tea, double sugar,” said Baby-uncle, leaving. My father took the paring knife and started to cut a peach into small pieces.
Baby-uncle came back with the tea. Big-Father began to read the Gita out loud.
“The death of the body does not harm the soul.”
My father started to feed Ba pieces of peach.
“From body to body, air into air, the soul moves freely.”
Now and then, Big-Father wiped the juice from around his mother’s mouth; Baby-uncle gave her sips of hot, sweet, tea. Usha and I just held hands and watched and listened.
“Weapons cannot cleave the soul, nor can fire consume it. Nor can water drench the soul, nor can the wind, as breeze or gale, ever at all dry it.”
It took Ba a very long time to eat her peach. I could hear the sound of soft fruit on gums, the drone of the machines, and the familiar cadences of the Gita, their poetry almost in time with Ba’s slow, scarce breaths. She finished her peach at the same time that Big-Father finished reading. A monitor beeped and a thin, straight line divided the screen.
In the days after the funeral, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ba’s fog. Once, I asked my mother where Ba was now and she said that if she wasn’t with god, she was probably around somewhere.
“What do you think she came back as? A cat?” I asked.
“No. Eat your cereal.”
“No. Put your bowl away, put on your shoes.”
“Too soon. Get me the comb.”
“Could she come back as fog?”
“No. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Are your laces tied?”
“Is fog alive? Can a soul get into fog?”
My mother stopped trying to do three things at once and looked at me. Then she bent down to hold me.
“Sometimes we all live in fog.”
“Did the fog get out of Ba’s room?”
She didn’t answer and from the way she was breathing into my shoulder, I knew she was crying.
“Mommy, am I going to get Ba’s fog?”
It was summer when we moved. Once everything was loaded up into the truck and the moving men were ready to drive off, my mother and father stood waiting next to a taxi, the youngest boy from among us children standing at their side. I told Usha to hurry up.
“She’s not coming,” said my father.
“Not coming? Why is he coming?” I whined.
“How would your brother not be coming?” said my mother. Usha didn’t come; she stayed with her own mother and father. She was my cousin. Inside, my heart began to thump against my ribcage. Things were starting to go wrong.
I watched as Usha’s father came up to mine, waited for the familiar swoosh of my mother’s loose sari end against me as she wrapped it around her head. But the swoosh didn’t come. I began to tug at the sari’s end myself to remind my mother of what she was supposed to do but she just batted my hand away. That was when the thud in my chest began to echo in my head as I realized that she was neither going to cover her head or step away. The closer Usha’s father got, the faster the thudding in my body. Why couldn’t my mother do what she was supposed to do? I took a deep breath and waited for the shouting to begin. Instead, Usha’s father folded himself at the knees and took me into his arms. My father gave his brother a handkerchief for the tears that stood in his eyes.
“It’s a big move for her,” my mother said to Usha’s father, her voice quavering.
The thud and echo of my heart stopped and gave way to something else, a feeling so unfamiliar that I didn’t recognize it, couldn’t put words to it.
Standing back up, Usha’s father looked at his brother, then to my mother. “May God watch over you and yours.”
“And yours,” said my father, looking over to my cousins and their mother. Then he bent down to touch his older brother’s feet. It was the last time I saw him use that gesture of respect with anyone.
“I hear the weather’s always good in Florida,” said my uncle.
“They call it the ‘Sunshine State,” said my father.
“Just take care of everyone and keep in touch,” said my uncle, “and don’t become too American.”
Too American I wondered?
I saw that the sun around us was so bright and the air was so clear that my mother, my father, my brother, my uncle, my aunt, and my cousins were separate, lucid shapes. This was the absence of fog.
Nimisha Ladva lives in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Her stories have been published in the Connecticut Review and Stand. She has been featured in Philadelphia’s First Person Arts Festival.