Copyright is held by the author.
“RISE AND SHINE, rise and shine, rise and shine.”
Mouli woke with a start. Her brain somersaulted from the depths of sleep to make sense of what she had heard. The sun’s rays slanted in through the window, dust motes swirling patterns in the light. Outside the crows bickered in the mango tree. The neighbour’s son revved his motorbike as the girls from St Agnes College giggled past. It all was part of an afternoon routine. Except that voice. Her dead husband was talking to her.
She clutched her sari to her breast, squinting in the brightness. The incessant whir of the fan disoriented her. His glasses were on the dresser as usual. And his watch. But he was never without his watch. And then, again:
“Good morning Miss Molly. Rise and shine, rise and shine, rise and shine”
Mouli turned and looked at Popat eyeing her cheekily from his cage. Popat usually did clever imitations of her, and often when the cleaning woman was mopping the floors.
“Sweep below the cupboards, no short cuts,” making the poor woman jump. But he had never done an imitation of Satish before. He was gone a month now. So sudden. He had collapsed in the garden, plump mangoes had rolled out of his hands into the ditch where the squirrels and crows feasted on them. She felt such anger that he never got to taste the first mango of that season; she did not bother harvesting them. She let the birds and neighbourhood urchins gorge on them. Even Popat did not get his share.
The parakeet looked at Mouli, and jumped from one foot to the other. His claws clattered as he fluttered his wings. “Hello Miss Molly.”
It was as if Satish was right beside her. He had always called her Miss Molly. There was a song, his favourite song, Good Golly Miss Molly. He’d tease her because when they married and she came to this house, 41 years ago, she proclaimed to her surprised mother-in-law that she could not eat with her fingers. She had an Anglo-Indian ayah who taught her to eat the “proper” way. And after that, he sang that song under his breath as she tackled the fish bones with a knife and fork.
But soon she adjusted to the family ways. Eating with her fingers became natural to her, just as wearing vermillion on her forehead and praying for her husband’s long life by fasting on Tuesdays. She became the ideal good wife, but her nickname stuck. She was always Miss Molly to him. On their first anniversary, he bought her a parrot. She was disappointed. Her sister-in-law had got a gold necklace from her husband, and she never forgot to mention it on all occasions. She laughed when she saw Mouli’s present. “But Satish is like that only,” she had said. “Always joking.”
She turned her back to him as he slipped in beside her. Her sister-in-law’s laughter still echoed in her mind. How could he do this to her? Why was he always teasing her in front of his family?
“Hey, Mouli,” Satish whispered. “Are you upset with me?” He put his arm around her waist and laced his fingers with hers.
She nodded, not trusting her voice. A tear trickled down her cheek onto the pillow. She heard him laugh softly and then he pulled her closer. “Miss Molly,” he whispered, kissing her hair. “Don’t let them bother you. She’s just jealous of you.”
“Jealous?” Mouli said, trying to ignore his insistent hands. “She’s jealous you gave me a parrot?”
“No, silly. Of this,” he laughed and embraced her. “She doesn’t know what she is missing.”
Mouli turned to him, pressing her body to his, welcoming his love. Welcoming their first child into her womb.
Mouli got out of bed slowly. Any sudden or quick movements would make her head spin. Sometimes she saw stars, and everything blacked out for a second. The doctor said low blood pressure. She ignored it. This had happened to her ever since she could remember. She laid a finger on his glasses. She wiped them with the end of her sari and placed them inside a drawer. The children had left now. Gone back to their homes, to their lives. They wanted her to come with them, but she declined. They suggested putting the house up for sale. To have a developer build a multi-storied apartment block, where she could have a flat. Much more convenient. Safer.
She wanted to spend as much time here in their house, before it all disappeared. The mango tree, which Satish himself had planted as a child. Not deliberately planted, he had thrown his sucked-clean mango stone to the ground and gone off to play. A tree grew in its place. Home to new inhabitants and fruit for all to enjoy. It would all disappear very soon.
“Miss Molly how are you today? Good golly, Miss Molly,” Popat called from behind.
Mouli turned around and smiled at him. “I’m fine, my darling, how are you?”
“Fine fine, I’m fine. Have you seen my glasses?”
Mouli laughed out loud. It was the first time since that day that she laughed. “I haven’t seen your glasses, Mr Mitter. Look for them yourself.”
She stopped. Popat blinked back and cocked his head to one side. Mouli shook her head and popped a chilli in the cage. She left the room. In the kitchen, she set herself to make a cup of tea. How tedious to make just the one cup. As the water danced in the vessel, she heard the neighbour’s maid sweep their front yard. How much longer would they hold out? The city was mushrooming into tower blocks and concrete jungles. She’d miss the sound of the whispering trees, the crunch of the gravel, the song of the koel when the time came.
She pushed the morose thoughts out of her head and concentrated on making the tea. She remembered to bring just one cup out and the salty biscuits. He always had the sweet. She took the tea and biscuits to the verandah. It was still sultry, but she wanted to be out among the trees. Parrots screeched from the upper parts of the mango tree. She felt guilty whenever she heard them. What if Popat too wanted to be outdoors, free? Forty years in a cage was not a pleasant experience surely. Perhaps she should let him go. She heard him clattering in his cage. Then he cleared his voice, just like Satish did.
At the sound of that, her hands trembled. She set the saucer down, careful not to drop the tea. Tears came unbidden to her eyes. How she missed those sounds. His voice. His shuffling through the house, dropping biscuit crumbs and crumpled newspapers with half-done crosswords. She had come across a newspaper the other day, wedged behind the bed, and she had sat down and completed the crossword. Now she had all the time to finish them, one by one, before she was gone.
Popat called out to her: “Miss Molly. Miss Molly.” She ignored him. How did he suddenly begin to talk in Satish’s voice? Was it a message from him? Mouli sat back in the wicker chair and pressed her fingers to her temples. Was this Popat’s way of comforting her?
“Leave him alone, Shona,” Mouli scolded her daughter. She was dangling a piece of guava in front of Popat’s cage and making faces at him. The parrot squawked, scrabbling against his cage in an attempt to grab the fruit. “Don’t tease him so. Would you like someone to dangle a chocolate in front of you, and not give it to you?”
Shona giggled and threw the guava in. “Where’s my chocolate?” she claimed. “Give me my chocolate now.” She skipped around her mother, giggling and shouting, while her mother swatted her away.
“Chocolate now chocolate now chocolate now.”
They stared at Popat, who seemed to be grinning at them.
“Arrey, this parrot talks,” cried Mouli, delighted. Shona clapped her hands with glee. Mouli immediately called her husband at the office.
“I was waiting for the day you’d appreciate him over a gold necklace.” He laughed. “My heartiest congratulations to Popat!”
The phone rang. It was Shona. Asking, like every day, how she was. And how did it matter to her? Mouli thought bitterly. What could she do, sitting thousands of miles away in New Jersey? She rearranged her voice to a friendly tone and answered.
They talked for a while. Popat got restless and shouted at the top of his voice. Mouli stuck her head in and glared at him. She didn’t want Shona to hear Popat.
“What’s that, Ma? Who’s there with you?”
“Oh, it’s only your . . .” Mouli hesitated. “No one. There’s no one here. Only Popat.”
Lata dropped in later that evening. Her evening walks took her past Mouli’s house. She usually dropped in for a chat. They had been new brides at the same time. They grew up sharing good times and bad, and lots of rivalry between them to keep their friendship interesting.
“You didn’t come, Mouli.” She panted, struggling to take off her canvas walking shoes. “Sarla was there today. She brought homemade samosas.”
Mouli sighed and motioned her to sit down. She stepped into her bedroom to get the magazine she had borrowed from her.
“Lata is here,” she whispered to Popat. “Fat as ever, still only talks about food. God knows why she bothers with her evening walks. She eats and eats all the time.”
Popat chuckled. “Fatty fatty fat fat,” he said.
“Shhhh.” Mouli giggled. “She’ll hear you. Remember once how you called her fatty and she heard you. She didn’t talk to us for a month.”
Popat bobbed his head. Mouli lowered her eyes. Satish had called Lata fatty, not this parrot. “I better get back to her,” she whispered and rushed out of the room.
“Maaaa, Shona’s let Popat out of the cage.” Bablu screamed, running into the kitchen.
Popat flapped his wings and flew towards the open window. Shona wailed and flung herself on the floor. The cage door creaked, incriminating her. Mouli chased after the parrot, calling out endearments, holding out a chilli she had just been about to put in her curry. But Popat flew away. The children cried. Mouli comforted them. Perhaps it was for the best, Popat was with his family now. But that night, she cried in Satish’s arms. The loss was so immense, it staggered her. She measured her happiness in the parrot’s cheerful chatting. He accounted for every year of their wedded bliss. This is a bad omen, she kept saying. Satish stroked her hair and murmured comforting words in her ear.
“Who knew you’d compare me with a parrot,” he said. “You once cried because he came into your life. And now you’re crying because he is gone. Make up your mind, woman.”
“Don’t tease,” she cried. “I feel like I’ve lost a child.”
The next morning, she was woken up with screams and shouts again. But ecstatic ones this time. Popat was hopping on his cage, shouting “Good morning good morning good morning.”
When the sun had set, and Mouli switched on the lights in her house, she watched Popat settle down to sleep. She draped a bedsheet over his cage and tiptoed out of the room.
“Goodnight Miss Molly,” his voice came through the cage.
“Goodnight, Satish,” she whispered. “I love you. Always have.”
“I love you, Miss Molly. Love you love you love you.”
Mouli was glad. She had said what she had never said to her husband in all those living years. It was him, really. Wasn’t it?
Tomorrow she would set him free. He could roam the skies and eat the mangoes himself. The tree he had accidentally planted all those years ago. Tomorrow he would taste the fruit. Then he would return to her. She was sure of it.